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Nitzavim 5765-2005

“The Hidden Things Belong to G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

On the final day of his life, Moses gathers all the people of Israel, from the most exalted to the lowliest, old and young, men and women, and inducts them, for the last time, into the Covenant of G-d. He warns the people against engaging in idolatrous worship, and beseeches them to remain loyal to G-d.

In Deuteronomy 29:28, Moses concludes his message with the following enigmatic statement: “Ha’nis’ta’rot la’Hashem Eh’lo’kay’noo, v’ha’nig’lot la’noo ool’va’nay’noo ahd o’lahm, lah’ah’sot et kol div’ray ha’Torah ha’zot,” the hidden things are for the Lord, our G-d, but the revealed things are for us and our children forever, to carry out all the words of this Torah.

The classical commentators, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) and the Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator), explain that the people of Israel were afraid that they would be held responsible for the transgressions committed by sinners in private, even though they had no knowledge who committed those sins. Moses, therefore, reassures the people that hidden sins are the province of G-d alone, and that only the sinners themselves are held responsible for those transgressions. Nevertheless, all of Israel is expected to maintain the nation’s integrity by opposing all sins that are committed openly.

The Ramban also explains that this verse alludes to sins that are hidden from the perpetrators themselves. In these cases, the Ramban explains, those sins belong to G-d, in the sense that G-d will not hold those sins against the sinners, since the people who commit them did so out of ignorance of the law or because of the lack of clarity regarding the particular circumstances.

Rashi, in his commentaries to Psalms 87:6 (cited in the Stone Edition of the Artscroll Chumash, p. 1090), explains that because of the vast assimilation that the people of Israel will experience, many Jews will completely forget their Jewish origins. In the time of the Final Redemption, these “hidden ones,” who are known only to G-d, will be reunited with the Jewish people, and restored to their status among the Jewish nation.

Upon learning about Rashi’s interpretation to Psalm 87, I thought to myself that Rashi must have been referring to our own day and age, since so many Jews who had forgotten their Jewish identity are now being restored to their Judaism, as the movement of Jewish return sweeps across the country.

It is indeed an exciting time to see the many people, young and old, known colloquially as Baalei Teshuva (Masters of Return) who are re-engaging in Jewish life in significant numbers. Truth be told, they are not all “re-engaging” in Jewish life. In fact, most are engaging in Jewish life for the very first time, and that is why the proper nomenclature for such people is not Baalei Teshuva, but Tinokot Sheh’nish’bo–children who have been taken into captivity and are now being introduced to the heritage of their people for the very first time.

While the return of the Baalei Teshuva has been happening for decades, as of late, a newer phenomenon has appeared on the scene. It is probably still too early to say that it is a real “movement,” but significant numbers of people from extremely assimilated Jewish backgrounds seek today to embrace the heritage of their parents and grandparents. Many of these people have only one Jewish parent, very often a Jewish father, and a Jewish surname. Unfortunately, these young people, of paternal Jewish descent, are not recognized as Jews by Orthodox and Conservative standards, who only regard those of maternal Jewish origin as Jews. Yet they seek to return to traditional Judaism and observance. These young people, who often come from prominent homes and have attended the most prestigious schools, are coming, in not insignificant numbers, seeking to embrace their heritage. Many of them are undergoing rigorous Orthodox conversions, and, at times, painful adult circumcisions, with a fervor and devotion that is truly inspiring. Significant numbers of Russian Jews, whose parents knew nothing about their Jewishness in the former Soviet Union, also seek to embrace tradition.

I recently received a call from a friend who runs a school for Russian Jewish boys. He told me that he was in the throes of a painful dilemma about accepting a young Russian student into the ninth grade. The boy’s Jewish father had come to plead with him to allow his son to enter the school. The boy, as well, staged a virtual sit-in at the school, refusing to leave. Pleading with my friend, the father explained that when he married the boy’s non-Jewish mother, he knew nothing about Judaism, and now was determined that his son not be ignorant as well. He wanted to give his child a choice. Trying to dissuade the father, my friend drew a grim portrait of what would happen if his son became religious, started to observe the Sabbath and to keep kosher, and depicted the turmoil it would wreak on the family, and create at home. Without hesitating, the Russian father stated that he was prepared to take the risk, as long as his son had a chance to be the kind of Jew that he never had the opportunity to be.

After consulting with different rabbinic authorities, the young man was conditionally accepted into the school, and appears to be, at least at this point, one of the most committed, diligent and knowledgeable students.

Within this context, the verse in Deuteronomy 29:28 takes on new meaning: The hidden things belong to the Lord, our G-d, but the revealed things are for us and our children forever, to carry out the words of this Torah. We pray that our “hidden” and assimilated brothers and sisters will soon be “revealed,” reunited with the rest of the Jewish people, and restored to their status as beloved members of the Jewish nation.

May you be blessed.