Most of the time we talk about the big idea of the parasha, the grand flow of the Torah. Sometimes we drill down into just one little word. And sometimes we talk about teeny tiny dots. Today, it’s dots.
The Torah portion is Nitzavim and in perek 29, pasuk 28 (that’s chapter and verse respectively) we get these words: “lanu ulvaneinu / for us and our children.” The interesting thing here is the dots over the letters in the Hebrew text. Each letter has one dot. There are only 10 times this sort of scribal marking is found, so it really calls out for some explanation. It is as if you underlined some passage in red ink, or took a highlighter to a poignant sentence.
The full pasuk is this: “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.”
The context is simple if not nerve-wracking. As God recapitulates much of our story in Deuteronomy, we are reminded that all of the Jewish people, from the high-born to the low, from the elite cohanim to the average working stiff are all part of the covenant with God. All of us are welcome, all of us are privileged to receive Torah.
Then we are warned what will happen if we turn to idolatry. Perhaps some of the people at that very moment are thinking of leaving. Well then, promises God, it will not go well with you.
Immediately there is a problem. For whom will it not go well? All of us? Because a few of us stray? And what if their sins are concealed?
Nachmanides (d. 1270) offers two comments. One, the classic, is that the people should deal with any overt violators of the law but that God will handle those who perform violations in secret. Point number two adds something more intimate, something more fitting to this season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It says that while God will handle the concealed acts, “for us and our children” means we should attack our own overt sins, address that which we know we got wrong. It is for us and our children to be honest about how we have acted. But if there are concealed wrongdoings that are concealed even from ourselves, we should have no guilt. If you have done something wrong but have no knowledge of that, you should not feel guilty. Guilt on its own is not the goal. Feeling bad about ourselves for no specific reason is not of interest to God. The general cry, “I’m a sinner, I’m a sinner!” without details is not desired, suggests Nachmaniodes.
The dots tell us and our children to work hard at addressing what we know, to be honest about what we know and not to imagine anything worse.
The upcoming 10 days are about striving toward honesty, not wallowing in guilt. And you can highlight that and underline it in red.
Meaningful Days of Awe to you all. PJC
Rabbi Larry Freedman is the director of the Joint Jewish Education Program. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.