Secret Sins


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Why did Moses command the Jews to bless and curse each other[1] at the moment they were to enter and inherit Israel? We must first clarify that “curses” do not have powers. They are mere verbalizations of disdain. As Parshas Re-eh states, “The curse is if you do not listen to God’s laws and stray from the path…” [2], and nothing more. That defiance of Torah itself is the definition of curse. A cursed life is the greatest loss, for the life of Torah is most pleasant, while all other lifestyles are filled with frustration. So the statement that one is “cursed”, means nothing more than one is leading a corrupt life.

Now, these curses included those who commit idolatry in private, encroaching on another’s property, degrading parents, smiting people privately, sexual prohibitions, and distorting justice. In other words, these curses embodied hurting someone else either verbally, by taking advantage of those less fortunate or by misrepresentation; physically in one’s property or body; or mentally, by offering misleading information. (Saadia Gaon teaches that all commandments are of only these three categories, since man’s acts can either be verbal, physical or mental.)

But the commentaries state that all of these curses are of a private nature, and the two mentioned here that also lend themselves to public performance, are herein specified in only their private form: “one who creates an idol and hides it”, and also, “one who hits his fellow in private”. Why were these curses in connection with only those violations performed secretly, and against another person?

Perhaps the inheriting of Israel by each tribe and individual focused those Jews on the self. Man identifies his monetary success with his self-image. When wealthier, man feels better about himself, since accomplishment is often one’s barometer of his true value. The Talmud states, “Man’s wealth stands him on his feet.” Wealth literally satisfies man by removing all of his concerns.

Obtaining land is a great conquest, driving energy to one’s sense of self. So too, violations against another person performed in private express one’s overindulgence in the self. “Others are not important” one feels. The act of “privately” violating Torah indicates that one feels his subjective actions are a value, and what the masses follow is of no concern. This is all the more relevant at this precise moment in history, as the Jews were now to become a people, no longer individuals, responsible for each other’s Torah violations upon entering Israel[3]. This is the definition of a nation: shared responsibility. To counter such egocentric feelings that might arise when obtaining the land, Moses commands the Jews to publicly curse those sinful activities that share this same personality flaw. By denouncing specific sins performed privately and which heighten self-aggrandizement, Moses curbed this ego emotion before it initially took hold, prior to the Jew’s inheritance of Israel by commanding the people to publicly curse such private violations. The desired outcome is that people will fear these violations and will strive to live as a union under God’s laws.

[1] Deut. 27:15-26

[2] Deut. 11:28

[3] Deut. 27:9