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Public and private

Devarim | Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

The book of Devarim is composed of Moses’ farewell speeches to the Israelite people in the days before his death. He begins with an overview of the history of the wilderness years — how they had come to where they are today — on the steppes of Moab, preparing to enter the land of Canaan. He will continue with a review and elaboration of the statutes and ordinances of the Torah, both the details of ritual and its sweeping ethical statement. Finally, the book will conclude with Moses’ final blessing and death.

In this week’s Torah reading, Moses begins with a warning not to repeat the errors of the past generation, who lost their opportunity to enter the land when they panicked at the report of the spies.

Moses also reminds the people how he had, when they first came to Sinai some 40 years earlier, appointed judges and officers to help him administer the camp. He says that as part of the charge he gave to the newly appointed judges, he told them, “You shall not be partial in judgment; hear out low and high alike. Fear no man, for judgment is God’s.”

The Sifre comments: You might say, “I am afraid of So-and-so lest he slay my children or set fire to my stacks of grain or uproot my planting.” Hence, “Fear no man, for judgment is God’s.” As a matter of Halacha, even if a judge is threatened with physical or financial harm, he may not allow this to sway his judgment or even excuse himself from hearing the case. If a judge were to let it seem that the Torah’s laws could be bent or ignored because of personal considerations, he desecrates God’s name.

This is surely the contextual meaning of the verse, but what occurs to me is a line from the siddur that appears near the beginning of the morning service. We say, “l’olam y’hei adam y’rei shamayim baseiter u’vagalui u’modeh al ha’emet v’doveir emet bilvavo” — “a person should always revere God in private as in public and acknowledge the truth in his heart.” This version appears in many siddurim, but there is a slightly different that appears in others. These siddurim omit the word u’vagalui, in public, saying, “a person should always revere God in private.”

I very much prefer this second version, because it’s a daily reminder that all too often we revere or “fear” people more than we fear God. We worry about how others see us, so when other people, people who know us, are around, we behave in ways that make us look good.

When we know that someone whose good opinion we value is watching, would any of us use a racial epithet, hit a parked car and drive away without leaving a note, drop an empty coffee cup on the street, or help ourselves to a snack while grocery shopping and leave the opened package of food on the shelf? This is “revering God in public” — behaving properly and decently when people are watching. But what about in private, when nobody else is looking?

This is what Moses told the judges — “Fear no man, for judgment is God’s.” In public and in private, God is always watching.

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