Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Ki Tavo
Dirty Little Secrets
What causes a society to unravel? What offenses bring about a polity’s destruction? What types of behavior cause a society to forfeit its right to exist? In a sense, this has been the major theme of the book of Devarim: Moshe’s parting words to the nation abound with warnings against the sins that will result in exile from the land they are about to inherit. Indeed, Moshe’s exhortations and admonitions comprise such a large part of the text that it is difficult to “rank” them in terms of their destructiveness.
Nonetheless, Moshe gives the nation instructions regarding a unique ritual that they must perform upon entering the Land of Israel: In a demonstrative public setting, all the tribes are to be organized into two camps, standing on two facing hills. There, the entire nation will pledge allegiance to God, declaring their general and individual commitment to the laws and mores of the Torah. This foundational event seems perfectly logical; as they enter the next phase in their life as a nation in their homeland, a re-statement and ratification of their “constitution” seems appropriate. However, this ritual does not end with a general statement of purpose: Eleven laws are singled out, proclaimed, and specifically accepted or affirmed.
Perhaps predictably, the first of these eleven laws is the prohibition of idolatry. Despite the fact that this prohibition has been taught so many times, the precise formulation in this instance is somewhat surprising:
“Cursed is the person who makes a sculptured or cast idol - which is repulsive to the Almighty, your God even if it is a piece of fine sculpture - and places it in a hidden place.” All the people shall respond and say, ‘Amen’. (Devarim 27:15)
The setting is dramatic, and the use of a “curse” certainly adds flair. And yet, the content of this curse seems strangely self-limiting: The prohibition against idol worship has never before been limited to graven images “in a hidden place.”
The second “curse” prohibits disrespecting one’s parents; the progression seems to be taking on a recognizable pattern, reminiscent of the Ten Commandments. However, the next three curses are concerned with laws not found in the Ten Commandments: Moving a boundary marker, misleading the blind, and perverting justice for the disenfranchised. While we might try to “squeeze” these laws into the Ten Commandments framework, it is not an easy fit.
The following four curses all involve sexual sins, followed, once again, by a law that refers to something secretive or hidden.
“Cursed is he who strikes down his neighbor in secret.” All the people shall say, 'Amen.' (Devarim 27:24)
The penultimate curse is for the person who takes a bribe, followed by a more general statement:
“Cursed is he who does not uphold and keep this entire Torah.”
All the people shall say, 'Amen.' (Devarim 27:26)
While we are not at all surprised to find idolatry and sexual sins singled out (though not necessarily the particular sexual sins mentioned here), we ought to be quite surprised by the emphasis this list places on things that are hidden. Generally, when we imagine the types of transgressions that bring about the collapse of societies, our thoughts naturally gravitate to things that go awry in the public sphere. Public desecration of holy places, corruption of public institutions, even depravity in the public eye seem far more dangerous to a society than things that happen in the privacy of an individual’s home. And yet, the transgressions they must proclaim at this great founding assembly are precisely the opposite. This unexpected emphasis is intended to teach a subtle lesson: When it comes to public deviation from the law, the Torah-mandated judicial system is capable of dealing with the problem, whereas the surreptitious sinner poses a greater threat to the stability of the society.
Secret sins, the sins committed behind closed doors, cause moral corrosion from within. These sins do not reach the public eye or ear, yet it is precisely these sins that harm the body public, one individual at a time. The dissonance between the public façade and a private life that is in shambles erodes the individual’s dedication and identification with the collective, and society cannot long endure if it is supported by such feet of clay.
Before we launch the great enterprise of living as a holy nation in a holy land, a public declaration must be made, a public commitment – to the decency and holiness of each individual’s personal life. Temptations would abound in the new land, and the preceding chapters in the book of Devarim set out the apparatus for creating a holy collective: Courts and judges, a police force, and sanctions. Yet on the individual level, in the privacy of one’s own home or mind, rationalization and justification of sin are a far greater danger. Therefore, at the very outset, each and every member of the nation must participate in a ritual that reinforces his or her understanding of the consequences of sin on the most personal level: Rather than a list of the legal sanctions that would ensue, Parashat Ki Tavo frames the consequences in terms of curses. The repercussions of private sin are framed in the most private terms. The double life of the secret sinner is a cursed life; it undermines the individual’s connection to society, and eventually undermines the foundations of society as a whole.
The antidote to this ripple effect of dissonance and dis-cohesion is mutual responsibility. The symbiosis between the individual and society must be at the very forefront of our consciousness as we build our brave new society. Therefore, the people are to stand on two hills, facing one another in an arrangement that is made up of individuals, families, tribes, and an entire people – because their commitment must be to each of these levels. The responsibility of each to all and of the collective to each individual within it is profound: We are all on the same boat. If I bore a small hole in my private quarters, the boat takes on water, and everyone on it is imperiled.
For a more in-depth analysis see: