“The secret things belong to the Lord, our God, and/but the overt things belong (to us and our children) forever, to be done, all the words of this instruction” Deuteronomy 29:28


The above verse, Deuteronomy 29:28, is difficult to read as presented and that is precisely because you can read it one of two ways: with the words in brackets or without them. This possibility is created as a result of eleven little dots written over the words lanu ul’vanenu (“to us and our children”) in the Masoretic text.

According to Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, the dots indicate that the scribes were unsure whether these words really belong here. Does it matter? How does the meaning of the verse change whether or not we count them among it?

If they’re in, then we read: “the secret things are for God but the overt things are for us and our children to do the words of this Torah.” If they’re out, then we read: “the secret things are for God and the revealed for ever, to do all the words of this Torah.”

As always, grammar matters. Is that vav before “the overt things” conjunctive — “and” — or disjunctive — “but”? Are we saying that both the esoteric and the exoteric are God’s business, or are we saying that some things are and some things aren’t?

Nachmanides (Ramban) suggests that the distinction between “secret” and “overt” here is actually about consciousness, the conscious mind and the sub-conscious mind (as we’d call it today). If we accept this, then taking out these suspect words, we’d be implying that both the unconscious and the conscious things we do will be sorted out by God. That runs quite counter to a lot of our tradition, so to avoid it, we conveniently ignore that; perhaps as Ibn Ezra suggests, these two words were meant to be erased.

We must believe that the conscious actions we undertake are our responsibility, for without that we wouldn’t be accountable to anyone or anything, just hedonists putting our own self-interest above all else. But we also must believe that the secret, unconscious things which we do accidentally, are not going to incur liability on our part.

It is this balance, however artificial, that allows us to make amends, to do teshuvah. In distinguishing between unconscious and conscious, secret and revealed, we allow ourselves to be forgiven for our mistakes even while we seek forgiveness for our transgressions.



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