The Secrets Behind the Dots / Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh

Yakov Z. Meyer
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Yakov Z. Meyer

In his formulation in this week’s Torah reading of the main points concerning the philosophy of reward − i.e., when God will compensate his children and when he will punish them − Moses sums up by saying: “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” ‏(Deuteronomy 29:28‏).

The “secret things” are those sins that a person commits clandestinely and for which God metes out punishment, while the “things that are revealed” are those sins that are committed in public; thus, the public can see them and judge the individual accordingly. Commenting on this verse, Rashi writes: “A person cannot know the ‘secret things’ − the secret acts of another. God does not punish all his children for the secret sins that only God knows; instead, he will exact the proper punishment solely from the individual who committed them. However, ‘things that are revealed ... unto us and to our children’ − sins committed in public − are the responsibility of the public, which must rid itself of the evil within the community. If the public does not mete out justice for these sins, God will punish the entire community.”

A unique typographical phenomenon separates this verse from the others in the Torah. In the original Hebrew text, there is a dot above each letter in the two words “lanu ulevanenu” ‏(“unto us and to our children”‏) and also above the first letter ‏(ayin‏) of the two words “ad olam” ‏(forever‏). Altogether, there are 11 dots above these letters.

Furthermore, this is not the only verse where dots appear above the Hebrew letters. Initially, the role of these markings was to indicate words that should be erased from the text; however, since the words were not entirely erased and have only been marked, the sages feel that their presence must be explained. The sages construct a dialogue between Ezra the scribe, who was in charge of writing down the Torah text, and Elijah the prophet: “Ezra said, ‘If Elijah should come and ask me, “Why did you write the text in this manner?” I will answer him, “I have already placed dots above the letters.” If he says to me, “You have done a wonderful job in writing down the Torah text,” I will place dots above the letters’” ‏(Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version A, ch. 34‏).

According to Ezra, in this account, it is not certain whether the words indicated by dots should be included in the Torah text. Only Elijah, when he arrives, will be able to state whether they are needed. Instead of sitting idly by, however, waiting for his arrival, the sages interpret the ancient tradition concerning the markings as an additional textual layer that could be employed for interpreting the text of the Torah.

The sages view such dots in a variety of ways. Regarding Passover, the Torah states, “If any man of you or of your generations shall be unclean by reason of a dead body, or be in a journey afar off, yet he shall keep the passover unto the Lord; in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs” ‏(Numbers 9:10-11‏). The letter heh in the Hebrew word rehoka ‏(“afar off”‏) has a dot above it, and is interpreted by the sages as attesting to a diminished meaning of that word: “Rabbi Yossi said, ‘Thus, there is a dot above the letter heh to indicate that the place is not really distant, but that the person is − namely, that he is located outside the threshold of the Temple courtyard’” ‏(Mishnah, Tractate Pesachim, 9:2‏).

When Jacob and Esau are reunited after many years of estrangement, the text reads, “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept” ‏(Genesis 33:4‏). There dots above the Hebrew word vayeshakehu ‏(“and [he] kissed him”‏). The sages use the markings to interpret the word as indicating Esau’s ambivalence: “Esau did not kiss him wholeheartedly” ‏(Sifre, Numbers, Section 69‏).

In the above verse from Deuteronomy, what is the meaning of the dots above the words, “unto us and to our children”? Basing himself on the sages, Rashi writes: “The dots above the words ‘unto us and to our children’ are present to indicate that God did not punish the entire nation even for sins committed in public until the Children of Israel crossed the Jordan, and only after they took upon themselves the oath uttered on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal and became responsible for one another’s actions.”

The difference between the verse with the dotted words and the verse without them is a historical one. According to Rashi, before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, the verse could be interpreted as meaning that God would not punish the entire nation for sins committed in public or for sins committed clandestinely. Once they crossed the Jordan and entered Canaan, however, they became responsible for one another’s actions and thus also for sins committed publicly.

Prior to the entry into the Promised Land, suggests Rashi, the verse was read without the dotted words: “The secret things and the things that are revealed belong unto the Lord our God forever.” Just as the “secret things” − clandestine sins − belong to God, similarly, the “things that are revealed” − sins committed in public − belong to him as well; this is a complete reverse of the literal reading of this text. However, once the Israelites crossed the Jordan, the words “unto us and to our children” were added to the verse: All Israelites became responsible for one another’s actions and assumed responsibility for the “revealed” sins committed by themselves and their neighbors.

Thus, the literal reading of the verse was restored. The dots turn the verse into a layered text, a two-staged text in which the two variations represent different historical stages − before and after the crossing of the Jordan River and the entry into Canaan − in the consolidation of Israelite society. Not only does the verse describe two layers; it also contains two layers that are alluded to typographically by means of the dots above the words. The revealed layer − “unto us and to our children” − is spread out openly before the reader, stands in the center of the public sphere, and is subject to the public’s judgment. But the hidden layer is the midrashic stratum created by the sages; it is the individualized stratum through which these scholars, as interpreters of the biblical text, conduct a dialogue with their Maker
The sages’ exegesis concerning the dotted words describes a one-time historical process. Initially, they argue, there was only the concealed stage, in which “The secret things and the things that are revealed belong unto the Lord our God forever,” and in which there was no public sphere. The verse was hidden from the reader − just as the actions of the individual are hidden from public view. The revelation of the words “unto us and to our children” indicates the moment when the commentary departs from a literal reading. It is the moment when the literal reading of the verses becomes the property of the entire community, when they belong “unto us and to our children.” At this point, the commentary is directed toward the space that exists between man and God, and which was present before the entry into the Promised Land. This is the moment when the dotted words “unto us and to our children” appear in the verse, and when Israelite society becomes responsible for the actions committed by the individual. This is a moment that is both a political and a textual revolution.

When does this dramatic change occur? When does the verse burst forth from the sphere of the individual to the public domain? In Rashi’s view, the uttering of the oath on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, when Israel enters a covenant with God and when all Israelites become responsible for one another’s actions, is the very moment when the “things that are revealed” now belong “unto us and to our children.”

Perhaps this choice should be regarded as the starting point for the sages’ exegesis, which is intended to deal with the literal reading of the verses from the perspective of the covenant between Israel and God. It is also intended to mold them in accordance with a responsiveness and a creativity that are capable of explaining both the profound social change that occurs with the entry into Canaan, and the profound change that occurs in the way that the biblical text should be read.

Ezra from “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum,” by Guillaume Rouille (c. 1553).