"See this day I set before you a blessing and a curse: A blessing when you listen to the commandments of the Lord your Godâ€¦ and a curse if you do not listen to the commandmentsâ€¦ you shall give the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebalâ€¦" (Deut. 11:26-29)
This exhortation contains a number of linguistic and conceptual problems:
First, the opening word, "see" (re'eh in Hebrew), is singular imperative, but "when you listen" (tishme'u) is second-person plural. Why the change?
Second, the text goes on to say that there will be a blessing "when you listen" (asher tishme'u) and a curse "if you don't" (im lo tishme'u).
Here again, why the change?
Third, why two mountains near Shechem?
And lastly, the actual blessings and curses come later (Chapter 27:11ff.), with the concluding words: "These are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to conclude with the children of Israel in the Land of Moab, in addition to the covenant He had made with them at Horeb (Mount Sinai)" (Deut. 28:69).
What is the significance of this added covenant just before the entry into Israel?
The two mountains outside Shechem (Nablus) symbolize the difficult climb necessary for the Israelites to even begin to fulfill their God-given mandate of becoming a holy nation and a kingdom of priest/teachers to the world; and indeed this is the third covenant. In addition to the Covenant at Sinai, the religious covenant of the Ten Commandments and the 613 laws of our Torah, we have a mission to become a light unto the nations, to teach at least the seven universal laws of morality - do not murder, do not steal, do not worship false gods, do not be sexually depraved, do not eat a limb removed from a live animal, do not curse God, and set up courts to punish offenders - to all people.
Once the Israelites crossed the Jordan at the place where visiting ambassadors would enter and leave the Jewish land, they were commanded to set up large stones coated with plaster and write these laws of morality on them - "in a very clear manner of explanation," (be'er heitev; midrash: in all 70 languages, Deut. 27: 1-8). This would demonstrate that our message is to the whole of humanity. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, such a daunting task can be compared to climbing a great mountain.
In order for us to begin to carry out our mission, we must first become a holy nation ourselves. The Bible tells us the blessing will come when we keep the commandments. After all, "the reward of a commandment is the commandment itself" - the satisfaction we receive from helping a person in distress, the familial cohesiveness and inner peace as we observe the Sabbath. If, God forbid, we don't listen to the commandments, retribution may not come immediately, but evil will eventually bear its destructive fruits.
The great hassidic sage Shpolle Zeide put in a very memorable way. He tells how, as a child, he would go to a shvitz (steam bath) with his father, who would pour freezing water on him just as he began to perspire. "Ooh," he would scream as the cold water contacted his hot flesh, but - after cooling down - would exclaim happily, "Aah." (I had the same experience as a child attending the 10th Street and First Avenue Baths on the Lower East Side every Thursday evening with my father and grandfather; may their souls rest in peace).
"Remember, my child, the lesson of the ooh and aah," the Shpolle would hear from his father. Before (and often even during) the commission of a transgression, you have physical enjoyment - aah. But afterwards, when you ponder your sin and its consequences - ooh! In the case of a mitzva, however, you might cry ooh when you have to get up early for prayers or for a lesson of daf yomi, but in considering your religious accomplishment, you will always sigh aah afterwards.
Make sure you conclude your life with an aah!
Why is the opening word re'eh, see, in the singular?
Last summer, Hizbullah, agents of Iran and Syria, were shooting Katyusha rockets into Northern Israel, making the lives of the residents virtually impossible. Many inhabitants of more southern areas opened their hearts and homes to their embattled fellow citizens while our soldiers fought the enemy in Lebanon.
In Efrat, we opened our Neveh Shmuel High School dormitories, kitchen and dining hall, and many families opened their homes to temporary refugees from Karmiel and Bar Yohai. These groups included Sephardi haredim together with Russian immigrants, some of whom came with their crucifix-bearing spouses. Almost miraculously, the spirit of one nation Israel conquered all differences.
One of my neighbors, who hosted six individuals for six weeks, breakfast, lunch and dinner, invited me and my wife to a special Friday evening meal cooked by their guests (under supervision of the hostess). Before the hostess lit Shabbat candles, the three women (two of whom seemed of uncertain ancestry) asked if they could join in. I ruled in the affirmative. That entire Shabbat I was certain the Messiah would come - and I'm certain he made significant progress in his journey. In order to truly climb the mountain, we must say both ooh and aah as one people!
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.