When I heard that the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice was suspended indefinitely once a video of him beating his then-fiancé became public, I was shocked. Why did it take a video of this violent act to have the star running back booted from the NFL, when it had already been established that he was guilty of this act?
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It should not have mattered whether the public actually saw the violence or not. But images are more powerful than words.
This leaves us with a dilemma: How do we ensure that there are appropriate consequences for evil acts committed in private, when there is no one around to see, to testify? This is a problem as old as Torah, which provides us with some guidance.
In Deuteronomy 27:14-26, a section of the Torah we recently read in synagogue, we find a list of 12 sins that sound pretty familiar. They include curses for a person who commits idolatry, insults his parents, mistreats the vulnerable, and commits certain sexual sins. What is interesting about this section is that all the sins mentioned are also found elsewhere in the Torah. Commentaries question why they need to be repeated again here.
Two classical commentaries, by Ibn Ezra and Ramban, pick on this repetition, and offer an explanation. In two of the verses, 15 and 24, we find the word b’sayter, which means “in private.” This leads them to conclude that the Torah repeats these sins here to emphasize that one is liable whether they committed these sins in public or in private. Professor Jeffry Tigay, in the JPS Commentary, sums up their position: “These sins often escape detection because … commonly they are committed in secret or it is difficult for their victims to publicize them. The intent of this ceremony is to discourage such offenses by providing for their punishment by God.”
Here, the Torah addresses our modern-day dilemma. If someone does something wrong in public, in front of witnesses who could testify in court, it is easier for the legal system to determine his guilt. But when someone commits a crime in private, with no one around to see, what should happen then?
The Torah’s answer is that this is where God comes in. God will hold the person accountable for the murder, or the theft, or the idolatry that no one else sees. Underlying this is a challenging theological belief: that we are never really alone. God is always aware of what we are doing.
This idea comes up from time to time in movies. In “Defending Your Life,” the lead character, played by Albert Brooks, dies and goes to a place where he is judged based on scenes of his life that are watched; nothing is off limits. Then there’s “The Truman Show,” where Jim Carrey plays a man whose whole life has been filmed on camera, yet he has no idea. This is what the Torah is saying about our lives and God: God is always watching. God knows and cares about our behavior.
This idea of Divine surveillance is also in our liturgy, particularly for the High Holy Days. Next week, we will recite from our Mahzor the prayer V’khol Ma’aminim, which claims HaBohen u’Bodek ginzei nistarot, “God searches and probes all secrets,” and we will confess that we have sinned against God ba’galuei u’vasayter, “publicly and privately.” We even express this idea in our siddurim every morning. In birkot hashahar, the morning blessings, we said l’olam yehey adam yirei shamayim basayter u’vagaluei, “We should always revere God, in private as in public.”
There is a lot of talk today about how technology has taken away our privacy. How every email we send, every picture we post, every piece of data we save, has the potential to be made public. Our society says, “Be careful what you do, because other people might see it.” Judaism says, “Be careful what you do, because God will see it.”
Would Ray Rice have struck his then-fiancé if he knew he was being recorded? My guess is that he wouldn’t have. We tend to behave differently when the cameras are off, when we are not in public, when we are alone. Our behavior is effected when we know someone is there, watching what we do – and usually knowing that someone is watching makes us think twice before we do something we know is wrong.
There is an idea in the Talmud known as tocho k’varo, our inside should be like our outside. This teaches us to strive to act in private, where there is often less accountability, like we would act in public, where people are watching. Our tradition also affirms that God cares that we do the right thing. The idea that God knows what we do in private is meant not only to make us think twice about our actions, but to also remind us that God worries about us. Like a parent who keeps an eye on a child, God keeps an eye on us. Knowing this, believing this, helps us strive to live a life that brings blessings to ourselves and to others, whether we are in public or in private.
Rabbi Micah Peltz is a Conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.