The walls have ears

The walls have ears

Ki Tavo | Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

We all have our secret lives. Not that each of us has a sinister side, which we wickedly act out in some dark, private world, but we all act differently when we are alone, or with a few close intimates, than when we are out in public.

While there is nothing wrong with the fact that we each are two persons, perhaps even multiple persons, depending upon the social context in which we find ourselves, it is problematic when we act hypocritically, presenting a pious face to the world while acting cruelly and crudely in our own homes.

In this week’s Torah portion, there appears a particularly perceptive verse: “Cursed be he who strikes his fellow in secret — and all the people shall say, Amen.”

The Torah here recognizes the tendency humans have to reserve the worst side of themselves for their secret social settings, even when they behave meritoriously in public. It is the contrast between public demonstrations of righteousness and private acts of fiendishness that is cursed. 

Sinning in secret is particularly offensive in the religious personality. A person who believes in an omniscient God yet sins in private is guilty not merely of hypocrisy, but of heresy. If God knows all, how can you delude yourself into thinking that your secret misdeeds can go undetected?

The Shulhan Aruch, the Jewish code of law, opens with a statement recognizing that a person’s behavior when he is alone is very different from his behavior when he appears before a great king. And it urges the religious person to be aware that he is always in the presence of the great King of Kings, the all-knowing God.

But there is also a practical aspect to the importance of behaving properly even in secret. There is always the possibility that our secrets will be “leaked”; this is conveyed cogently in these words of caution found in Ecclesiastes (10:20):

Don’t revile a king, even in your intimate thoughts.
Don’t revile a rich man, even in your bedchamber;
For a bird of the air may carry the utterance,
And a winged creature may report the word.

Indeed, as our sages say (see Rashi on Berachot 8b), the walls have ears.

This week’s Torah portion also gives a comprehensive catalogue of other sins that tend to be performed behind closed doors. They include elder abuse, criminal business practices, deceiving blind persons, subverting the rights of the helpless, incest and bestiality, and the acceptance of bribery. Quite a list — and one that has not lost its relevance over the centuries.

To a certain extent, it is necessary and right that we maintain a facade of sorts when we interact in public. But many times, we go too far and split our personalities between the Dr. Jekylls of our external visible behavior and the Mr. Hydes of our inner sancta. How well advised we would be to set as an objective for ourselves the words of the Daily Prayer Book:

“A person should always be God-fearing, privately and publicly, acknowledging the truth and speaking it in his heart.”

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