“Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, ‘Observe all the Mitzvote/Commandments that I command you this day. …Silence! Listen, Israel! Today you have become the People of the Lord your God: hear God’s voice and perform His commandments and laws. …After you have crossed the Jordan, these tribes shall stand on Mt. Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken…. And for the curse, the following tribes shall stand on Mt. Ebal….” (Deut. 27: 1-13, translation mine).
Here, Moses divides the entire People of Israel into two groups and assembles them on the slopes of two opposing mountains, one to hear the blessing, the other, the curse. If they perform the mitzvote properly and follow the Torah to the letter, God will bless them; if not, He will curse them.
Moses was no youngster, and, even with the assistance of his home tribe, the Levites, maneuvering all those people like chessmen must have been enormously challenging, added to the Absolutely Good vs. Evil nature of their destination. Who would willingly choose to climb Ebal, the Mountain of the Curse? Would not everyone wish to ascend Gerizim, the Mountain of Blessing? Who made the final decision, which tribespeople received the blessing, which the curse?
Reading this portion year after year, have we ever imagined how difficult it must have been for our ancient leader, Moses, to choreograph the movement of thousands of Israelites to go left or right? Consider his ordering their steps, and telling them, “You, Chaim, go left with your family; you, Zev, go right”?
It reminds me of the very end of a funeral interment (God forbid), where it is customary to ask the mourners’ family and friends to divide into two lines, leading away from the grave, so that the mourners may pass between their lines of supporters. The idea is for the grief-stricken mourners, having heard the sound of the shoveled-earth-clods striking the casket—there is no sadder sound in all this lonely world—to be comforted by the sight of the many people who love, admire, and cherish them, and have come to be with them in their darkest hour. Imagine: friends wherever they turn! As the mourners pass through the double-line, I stand behind and chant consoling words: “May God comfort you with the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
How dramatic is all of this marching, teetering atop mountain-slopes, double-lining at the time of burial, and how ineffably solemn and sad! Is our God, then, mainly a Judge, a harsh Cosmic Magistrate, who lies in wait, certain that we mere mortals will fail? Or is He a lovingly patient Mother-Father, Who wishes and hopes for us to succeed in our divine service to Him and his Creation, and rules us with compassion and forbearance?
Sadly, this Parsha bears strongest evidence of God as Judge. Indeed, this particular section of Torah is so harsh, that it is known as the Tochacha, the “Rebuke.” Traditionally, the Ba’al Koray, or Torah-Chanter, sings it in a softer tone than the remainder of the Torah, since it is considered a major “kinehurrah,” or Evil Eye. One does not read bad tidings aloud, because, Jewish superstition holds, that might cause them to take place. It is curious that we Jews, a people who boast so much education—80% of Jewish youth of college age are, indeed, attending college, and many of their parents have, not only college degrees, but post-graduate ones, as well—still rely on these age-old superstitions, which we nonetheless deride as bubbe mysehs, “grandmothers’ tales.”
I grew up haunted by superstitions, and recall when, as a teenage high school student at Yeshiva University HS, having difficulties in Math class, my mother a’h would instruct me to sleep with my Math textbook under my pillow, which, she was certain, would cause the pesky Geometry proofs to magically filter into my overtaxed brain while I slept. Of course, all that I got was a headache from a hard pillow. During Final Exams Week, Mom would instruct me to put money into the pushka/Charity box, and to leave the house in the following manner: kiss the mezuzah with my left hand, holding my bookbag in my right, and step out the door on my right foot.
In the end, despite my mother’s Jewish voodoo, I barely passed Geometry. I would also point out that my superstitious mother was herself a college graduate, a teacher and administrator, and earned a Master’s Degree in her 70s. She remained superstitious all of her life. You never know.
With the approach of the High Holy Days, we may well ask how to take the “curses,” or sins, from our lives, and turn them to good deeds which will speak in our favor. Being a good Jew is not a matter of superstitions, spitting three times, or kissing the mezuzah upon leaving or entering the house. This last is not a bad habit to develop, but only if it reminds us to perform as many mitzvote as possible, when progressing through this wicked old world.
During this month of Elul, try performing a Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh, a Soulsearching, at the end of each day, or at least, before Shabbat: have you done something today which brought you closer to God? How many times did you help someone else? Did you remember to pray, whether verbally or physically? Did you thank God for all that is good and rare and true in your life? Did you accentuate the positive, and learn to endure the negative? It is easy to thank God when things are going well, but do you have the courage and gumption to turn to God for support when the day is long and the weather (either literal or metaphorical) not in your favor?
Not by words alone, but by our actions, will God judge us. A new year is coming, a new chance to improve. “As long as the candle burns, there is a chance to get the job done,” said my great-uncle, Velvel the Shoemaker. As the years go by, I realize, more and more, the wisdom of his words.