Actions: Overt and Concealed

If I were to make a personal list of the “Top Ten Greatest Torah Quotes,” (like those lists made about movie lines), many excerpts from this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, would make the cut.

It is in this Torah portion that God renews the covenant made with the Israelites and claims, “I make this covenant… not with you alone, but… with those who are not with us here this day.” To whom is this referring? The Medieval commentator, Ibn Ezra, teaches: “[This covenant is created] not with you alone, but rather, with you, and with those who shall come after you: your children, and your children’s children.” In other words, it is as though we, Jews alive today in 2020, are written into the Torah, and that God is making this covenant with us.

It is in this Torah portion where God says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” God tells us we will always be presented with moral choices and it is within our power to make these choices as Jews, a people connected to a God who loves goodness and righteousness.

It is in this Torah portion where God says, “Surely, this Instruction [the Torah] which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, it is very close to you, within your heart and your spirit.” In other words, God gives us the confidence of knowing that observing the Torah is not impossible. Though it might be hard, and though it demands much of us, we can indeed live by its dictates of fairness and justice.

I cherish these epic statements. They make me feel as though the Torah is speaking directly to me, to all of us who identify as Jews today, to all those who came before us, and to all those who will follow, long after we are gone.

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But there is another statement that God makes in this Torah portion. It’s not dramatic, and it’s not very well known. Yet this week, as we approach our holiest season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and as we mark the 19th anniversary of 9/11, it felt particularly meaningful to me:

“Concealed acts concern Adonai our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching, this Torah.”

What does this mean, exactly? It’s hard to know. The ancient Rabbis believe that this is a provision created by God to protect the Israelites. So long as a Jew transgresses the Torah in private, God will not punish the entire community for this sin. Only when the defiance is public must others intervene and guide the sinner back to the right path, lest everyone suffer God’s wrath.

This might not feel as relevant to us, but perhaps the idea of “concealed” and “overt” acts can mean something different for us today.

There are certain things about other people — their motivations, beliefs, and behaviors — that we will simply never understand. These “concealed” aspects of people, the aspects we cannot comprehend, can lead to public questions: “What could possibly lead a terrorist to take the lives of thousands of others in the name of faith?” Or they can be more private, personal questions about those in our lives whose behavior baffles us. Why do friends, family members, colleagues, strangers, act in ways that hurt us?

We will never know the answers to these questions. The Torah tells us that these behaviors are concealed to our own ability to comprehend. We cannot reckon with them, nor can we try to understand them. They are between a person and their God.

But overt acts are different. Overt acts are our own actions, the behaviors that we can control and understand. We will never be able to comprehend why people harm one another. But we can be there for our loved ones and listen to them when they are hurt. We will never be able to understand the actions of a terrorist. But we can (and JCP continues to) repair a community in the wake of devastation.

There are some things only God can understand. But that doesn’t rid us of our own obligation to take action in the face of pain and harm. Indeed, the Torah tells us, “it is for us and our children,” ever to be a presence of goodness, kindness, and justice, which are the “provisions of this Teaching, this Torah.”