Painting by Yoram Raanan.
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, we continue reading Moses’s speech to the nation before his death. At the beginning of the portion, Moses presents two options: “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed... to follow other gods...” (Deuteronomy 11: 26).
We all know that everyone faces these two choices.
When God created man, He did not force them to keep His commandments and abide by the moral voice the commandments convey. He gave humanity full freedom of choice. Each person is responsible for himself.
Every person can choose good or bad, and based on his deeds, bring about blessings or – heaven forbid – curses.
After presenting the choices, Moses commands the nation: “...when the Lord, your God, will bring you to the land to which you come, to possess it, that you shall place those blessing upon Mount Gerizim, and those cursing upon Mount Ebal.” (Deuteronomy 11: 29) In the portion Ki Tavo, Moses goes into greater detail regarding this commandment, with half the nation standing on Mount Gerizim and the other half on Mount Ebal – and the Levites standing between the mountains reading the blessings on Mount Gerizim and the curses on Mount Ebal and the entire nation responding, “Amen.”
This ceremony of giving the blessings on specific mountains seems odd at first. What does Mount Gerizim have to do with blessings and how is Mount Ebal connected to curses? Is there any significance to giving blessings or curses on mountains, even if the people are standing on them? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leading commentator who lived in Germany about 150 years ago, noted the great difference between these two mountains, which are situated to the north and to the south of the city of Shechem. Seemingly, these mountains resemble each other and are in a similar topographical area.
Their heights are similar as well, with Mount Gerizim rising to a height of 881 meters while Mount Ebal rises to a height of 940 meters. (Note – there are sages of the Talmud Yerushalmi who were unsure that these mountains are the biblical ones, but this is the accepted opinion.) These two mountains rise above the same earth and the same rain and dew water them both. The same air and pollen hover over both. In light of this, the difference between them is noticeable. Mount Gerizim is covered in flora to its very peak. It is alive and beautiful. Mount Ebal, however, is notably barren, lacking vitality and growth.
Because of this marked distinction, the blessings were placed on Mount Gerizim and the curses on Mount Ebal. This emphasized for us that blessings and curses are dependent on us. We must not think that external reasons cause a person to be happy and blessed, to be righteous or successful. We must not believe that if we did not merit wisdom or wealth, beauty or power, we cannot succeed in the world. We must comprehend that each person’s success depends on him or her.
Just as the mountains had the same external assets but different results, so with a person – external factors do not lead to one being blessed or cursed, but rather, one’s own deeds do.
If we choose to let momentary desires and varying impulses guide our path and blow us in different directions, we will not be able to choose blessings. But if we move ourselves forward and direct our ambitions toward the proper moral path, if we consistently walk in the path that is deemed the correct path in the eyes of God and man, we will enjoy infinite joy and blessings. The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.