Shabbat Greetings

This week, in Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8), we read about how Moses organizes a Rock Concert-like extravaganza, putting some the people on Mount Gerizim, whom we are told will “stand for a blessing,” and the rest on Mount Ebal “who will stand for a curse,” and proceeds to present twelve curses which rabbinic commentator Rashi calls “commandments” with a small “c”. The people on Mount Gerizim are to receive blessings and the people on Mount Ebal are to receive curses. Moses and the members of the High Priests (Kohanim) and the other priests (Levites) will stand in the valley between the two.

At first glance, splitting the tribes between the two mountains makes some sense, since, as we have been reading throughout most of the adventures in the wilderness, there are a huge number of people. What Moses has done is to, to a degree, create a giant stadium for his next presentation. But how did he choose the tribes to get blessings and the tribes to get curses? Or is he doing it just for illustration purposes? And the showmanship! Wow! Actually, the consensus of many rabbinic commentators is that the people on Mount Gerizim are there to CONFIRM blessings conferred by all of this, and the bunch on Mount Ebal are to CONFIRM the curses. They are neither blessed nor cursed in actuality. Or are they? Our Rabbis still want to know how Moses decided which tribes went to which mountain.

An answer emerges from the Jerusalem Talmud. They point out that the tribes who come down from the handmaidens Bilhah and Zilpah (Gad, Asher, Dan, and Naftali) will go to Mount Ebal. They will be accompanied by the two of Leah’s own – namely Reuben and Zebulun. We know what Reuben did – back in Genesis, he dragged his father’s bed from Rachel’s tent into Leah’s when he witnessed his mother’s distress. But what’s up with Zebulun? He has been separated from his brother and partner, Issachar, whom he supported in his academic pursuits, who is now on Mount Gerizim. Why has he been split off? According to tradition, constant involvement in Torah Study is smiled upon by  God. Likewise, support of those who study Torah is an important Mitzvah. So one would think that the partnership of Issachar and Zebulun would be desired. We learn in midrash that Zebulun didn’t partake of or participate in the fruits of Issachar’s studies. It was good that he supported his brother in his endeavor, but Zebulun, himself, really didn’t do very much. So up on Mount Ebal he goes, and the curse, “Cursed be whoever will not uphold the terms of this Teaching and observe them,” is his!

The next question is, what’s the deal with these “new” commandments? What has not been covered by the previous ones? The answer, which comes from the Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson), is that these 12 curses have to do with things that people can/will do clandestinely — things that cannot be perceived by others readily. And each of the curses seems to be tailored for each of the tribes. Our rabbis teach that  these cover the kind of sins committed by powerful, privileged people, who often think themselves as “beyond the reach of the law.” Meanwhile, there’s an anomaly here that begs explanation.

If you have even been to Israel, you may remember the guide pointing out Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal – yes, they are still there! But something has not changed since Moses’ discourse thousands of years ago. Mount Gerizim, to which blessings are directed, is bald, dusty, and uninhabitable. Mount Ebal, against which the curses were directed, is lush, beautiful, covered in grasses and wildflowers. You’d think that, over time, something might have changed, but it hasn’t. It’s in the same geographical area, with the same climate, the same rainfall, the same winds, the same sunrise and sunset – nothing’s different.

Wait! WHAT?

It has been suggested that people who believe themselves blessed and firmly established “…should not be so foolish to think that they are so firmly rooted and that nothing can change their position. We can believe that God can send curses even to the fertile, beautifully landscaped Mountain.” We can see that blessed people can live and accomplish, even in a barren desert if they continue to understand that they can be sustained and can prosper with divine blessing. In short, people who are blessed need to be thankful for those blessings, because life can turn on a dime! And sometimes, blessed people need a reminder that they are, indeed, blessed. So Issachar sits on Mount Gerizim and Zebulun sits on Mount Ebal.

And as we approach the High Holy Days, in addition to counting our blessings, we need also to look at our transgressions and seek forgiveness, not just from God, but from anyone we may have hurt, intentionally or not. And that applies to those of us on both Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal! Come and join with us tomorrow night for the Selichot service, a time for inspiration to create a new year of many blessings.

Shabbat Shalom