Recently, a good friend sent me a story over the net:
On an overcast day at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants, all physically or mentally challenged, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash.
What goes through the mind of a person who has overcome so many odds and confronted such challenges, as they stand at the start of such a journey? Why do they work so hard and come from so far to compete? Is it the desire to prove they can meet the challenges they are given, or do they simply want to win? Is it a need to prove they can be the best, or perhaps even a need to show the world and maybe themselves that everyone has the ability to become all they can be?
Regardless of the motivation, certainly the training involved in preparing for such an event must be intense to say the least. The organizers of such events are determined to maintain the hard-earned reputation that these are serious competitive sporting events with qualifying trials and high standards, and the grueling process of rising to meet such standards is difficult for anyone, all the more so for the individuals with special needs who compete in these events.
And of course, there is the desire not only to prove they can compete, but also to do well under pressure and make their families and friends proud of them when they actually do.
So the race itself must be an incredibly important moment for each and every competitor, and the thought of actually winning, a dream they have held in their hearts for months. Which is what made this particular race so incredible.
At the gun, they all started out, with a determination clearly apparent on all their faces to run the race to the finish and win.
All, that is, except one little boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times, and began to cry. It is difficult to imagine the sheer despair and disappointment inherent in such a moment; the dashed dreams, the lost opportunity, perhaps even the humiliation and disappointment that boy might feel, certainly in any average competitive race.
But this was no ordinary race. The other eight runners heard the boy cry, and turned around, as one, to see what was wrong. Slowing down and looking back, without any dialogue, discussion, or hesitation between themselves, they then turned around and went back… every single one of them. One girl with Down’s syndrome bent down and actually kissed the fallen boy and said: “This will make it better.”
Then all nine, spontaneously and without a thought, linked arms and walked together to the finish line. The entire stadium stood as one, and offered a thundering standing ovation; the cheering went on for several minutes. People who were there are still telling the story.
Sometimes, it isn’t about winning the race, or even about seeing the finish line; sometimes we get the opportunity to see that how we run the race is not just more important than winning, it’s the only way to really win at all, because that is what the race is really all about….
This week’s portion, Re’eh, begins with Moshe’s dramatic presentation of the blessings and the curses, which seem at first glance to be all about the rewards and punishments that await us when we enter theland ofIsrael, just across theJordan River:
“Re’eh anochi noten lifneichem hayom brachah u’klalah.
“See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse.
Et habrachah: asher tishme’u el mitzvoth Hashem Elokeichem asher anochi me’tzaveh etchem hayom.
The blessing: that you shall listen to the commandments of Hashem your G-d, which I command you this day.
Ve’haklalah: im lo’ tishme’u el mitzvoth Hashem Elokeichem ve’sartem min ha’derech asher anochi metzaveh etchem hayom, la’lechet acharei elohim acheirim asher lo’ yeda’atem.”
And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem your G-d, and stray from the path that I command you this day, to follow other gods that you did not know.” (Devarim 11:26-28)
The Jewish people are on the banks of the Promised Land, and Moshe is getting ready to say goodbye. In one of his final speeches, he seems to be forewarning this second generation, born in freedom in the desert, that Hashem will reward them if they do the right thing, but they will suffer the consequences as well for doing the wrong thing.
But if that is the purpose of this stirring speech, the words don’t seem to make sense.
Moshe just tells us to see the blessing and curse placed before us, but does not tell us what they actually are; why? In fact, the Torah does eventually get around to telling us what these curses and blessings actually are, but not until the portion of Ki Tavoh (27:12- 28:69), sixteen chapters later! So why are they introduced here?
And Moshe continues by telling the Jewish people:
“Ve’haya, ki’ ye’via’chah Hashem elokecha’ el ha’aretz asher atah’ ba’ shama le’rishta’, ve’na’tata et habrachah al Har Grizim ve’et ha’klalah al Har Eival.”
“And it shall be, when Hashem your G-d brings you into the land that you are coming to, to inherit, and you shall place (give) the blessing on Mount Grizim, and the curse on Mount Eival.” (11:29)
How does one ‘place’ blessings or curses on a mountain? What does this mean? One would assume that blessings and curses are received from G-d, not placed by us? And why and how can such consequences as blessings and curses be specific to one place? It seems that these blessings and curses take effect only when we actually enter the land of Israel, which is cause enough for question; after all, if we are blessed as a result of our behavior, should that not hold true regardless of where we are? But in this instance they actually seem to be specific to a specific place: the two mountains, which stand across from each other in a very particular valley?
In fact, the Torah takes great pains to make sure we know exactly where this valley is:
“Halo’ hemah be’ever ha’Yarden, acharei Derech Mevo’ Ha’Shemesh, be’Eretz Ha’Cana’ani ha’yoshev ba’Aravah, mul ha’Gilgal etzel Elonei Mamrei’.”
“Are they (these mountains) not just across the Jordan, beyond the Sunset Highway (in the direction of the Sun), in the land of the Canaanite, that dwells in the plain, opposite Gilgal, near Elonei Mamrei (the plain of Mamrei).” (11:30)
Tradition tells us that these mountains, whose names still remain to this day (preserved by local Arabs), stand above and on either side of the valley, which leads into the city of Shechem (Nablus). What is so important about these particular mountains, and why must the blessings and curses be ‘placed ‘there, and exactly what does all this mean? And of course, if this is such an important topic, why are these blessings and curses not delineated here? Why do we have to wait another three weeks to read what they actually are?
Rashi tries to resolve one of our questions by suggesting that “… ve’na’tata et habrachah al Har Grizim ve’et ha’klalah al Har Eival.” “…And you shall place (give) the blessing on Mount Grizim, and the curse on Mount Eival.” (11:29) refers not to setting the blessings on the mountains, but on those who bless. (Rashi 11:29)
And in fact (27:11-13) Moshe does later explain that when the Jews actually enter the land, six of the tribes will stand on one mountain and six on the other. But, as the Ramban (11:29) points out; this does not seem to fit the text, especially since the Torah does not actually mention those who are blessing at all!
And there are a number of other difficulties worth considering in this text:
Why does Moshe tell the people to look “today”? What is so special about this particular day? What has happened today to make the Jewish people take notice now?
And although we have already asked why the Torah does not tell us here and now what these blessings and curses actually are, one also wonders why the Torah then chooses to begin discussing what seems to be a mitzvah that has little or no bearing on this topic!
“For you are crossing the Jordan, to come and inherit the land that Hashem your G-d gives you, and you shall inherit it and dwell in it.
“And you shall keep (cherish) these laws and statutes to fulfill them.
“These are the laws and statutes that you shall keep (cherish) to do, in the land that Hashem the G-d of your fathers has given you to inherit, all the days you live on the earth: you shall totally destroy all the places where the nations you are driving out worshipped their gods…”
What does the command to destroy Canaanite idolatry have to do with the consequences of our general behavior as a people? And, if Hashem gives us the land to inherit, what does it mean that we are then commanded to inherit it, as the verse suggests? Obviously, if we are given it, we will inherit it!
There is a curious fact that may help us to shed light on this issue: way back when Judaism began, and Avraham first entered thelandofIsraelat G-d’s behest, guess what his first stop was?
“Va’ya’avor Avram ba’aretz, ad me’kom Shechem….”
“And Avram passed into the land as far as the site of Shechem.” (Genesis 12:6)
And Rashi makes the point of saying: “(Hashem) showed him the Mount Grizim and Mount Eival, for there Israel received the oath (promise) of the Torah.” (Rashi, Bereishit 12:6)
So Moshe is telling the Jewish people, that when they enter the landof Israel, they need to go back to the place where it all began!
In fact the Talmud tells us (Tractate Sotah 36a):
“In a single day, Israel crossed the Jordan and came directly to Mount Grizim and Mount Eival, a distance of over sixty miles (kilometers).”!
What was so important about this particular place? And what is the meaning of this entire story? The Ramban (11:29) actually changes one nuance of Moshe’s command, which may change everything , allowing us to suggest what we are really meant to infer from this entire story.
Moshe is not telling the Jewish people that if they behave in a certain fashion they will be blessed, nor is he telling them to place blessings on the mountain. What he is saying, suggests the Ramban is that they must choose thepath of blessings.
Up until this point, the Jewish people have been living a life of very little choice. Manna falls from the sky, water appears from a magic well, and all their actions meet with immediate reactions, such that they are not really choosing, merely testing.
But now, as they enter into thelandofIsrael, Moshe (really, Hashem) is telling the next generation of Jews that their time has come to choose.
“How do you choose to live?” is what Moshe is essentially asking them.
“Do you want to live a life of blessing, or a cursed life? The choice, in the end, is yours.” Perhaps this is why the actual blessings and curses do not appear here, because they are not yet the topic, they are the result of this topic much later on. Here, we are not dealing with the consequences of our choices; we are dealing with the choices themselves!
Four thousand years ago, a single individual, all alone in a world full of idolatry, heard a calling and made a choice. Believing in an unseen, unlimited, omnipotent G-d that created and loves us, he left everything behind, to journey to a land that G-d would show him. The beginning of Judaism was all about choices, and the fact that we have the ability to rise above where we are, and choose to be better, and even to be the best.
And hundreds of years later, Moshe gives his descendants the same challenge: to choose to make the world a better place to live. That is why these are not blessings we are given by G-d, in this case, we have to first put them out there. Because we are talking here not about the life we are given, but about how and what we choose to do with it.
Hashem is willing and so very much wants to give us these blessings, but we have to be wiling, however difficult and painful this may often be, to be partners in creating that blessing.
Maybe this is why when we enter the land, part of that choice entails breaking the idols that serve to hold us back, just as Avraham did all those many years ago. Before we can fill our lives with the light of seeing things the way they are meant to be, we have to let go of all the obstacles and illusions that keep us stuck in the mire of all the mistaken objectives that idolatry represents.
Indeed, this is the legacy of the city of Shechem, where Joseph is buried. Joseph was really the first Jew to live and die in true exile, and he chose to live up to who he was meant to be, despite all the challenges he faced. As well, in the story of Dinah, Yaakov in making a treaty with Shechem, and his sons, Shimon and Levy in choosing to take what was theirs by right, all made a choice, and may well, from their different perspectives, all have been right, each in their own way (See our Tastings of Torah Vayishlach 02-03)
And of course, this might be why Moshe gives the Jewish people this message to fulfill “today”; because every day is a new day, the beginning of the rest of our lives, and how we choose to live our life is entirely dependent on how first and foremost, we choose to view the world.
It is no accident that the portion of Re’eh, all about seeing things in a different way, always precedes the new month of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and the month that represents in Jewish tradition our attempt to see the world as it was meant to be, and decide how we can do a little better this year in helping it and us to get there.
On a running track inSeattle, nine very special children, nine pure souls, showed the world that we can see things differently, and that the race isn’t just run around the track, but at the starting gate.
May Hashem bless us all in the coming year with the vision to see the cup as full, and the doors as open, and allow us the the wisdom to see things in a better light, and the strength to then make them be that way.
Best wishes for a sweet, happy and healthy new year, Ketivah Ve’Chatimah Tovah, .
Shabbat Shalom from Efrat and Yerushalayim,