the choice before us
See! I have placed before you today a blessing and a curse; the blessing that you shall listen to the commandments which I command you, and the curse if you will not listen…(Devarim XI: 26 – 28 )
Moses’ famous call to the Israelites to follow the path of righteousness begins with the word “See!” This is unusual, since the Jewish emphasis is far more on hearing than on seeing. In the Shema prayer, for example, not only do we stress the importance of hearing (“Hear O Israel…”), but we cover our eyes to avoid visual distractions. But in this case the word “See!” is appropriate, because the choice between the path of blessing and the path of curse was to be presented to the Jewish people in a truly visual manner, in one of the most powerful psychodramas in the Bible.
The Mishnah (Sotah 7:5) explains describes how this drama was enacted:
When Israel crossed the Jordan and came to Mount Gerizim and to Mount Eval… six tribes went up to the summit of Mount Gerizim and six tribes to the top of Mount Eval. And the Priests and the Levites and the Ark of the Covenant stood below in between…The Levites turned towards Mount Gerizim and uttered the blessings and all the people responded Amen. Then they turned their faces to Mount Eval and uttered the curses and all the people responded Amen… And afterwards they brought stones and wrote all the words of the law in seventy languages…
It is hard to imagine a more dramatic enactment of a people at a moral crossroads, faced with a choice between two paths that would affect their common destiny. Although this enactment took place many centuries ago, three lessons from the ancient account still seem very relevant to the Jewish people as it confronts moral choices three thousand years later:
• A just society is its own reward: The commentators pick up on the curious wording of Moses’ commandment to the people. Rather than saying ‘the blessing if (‘im’) you listen’, and’ ‘the curse if (‘im’) you don’t listen’, Moses only uses the word ‘if’ (‘im’) in relation to the curse. In relation to the blessing he uses the word ‘asher’ – ‘which’. So the verse is more properly translated as a saying: ‘the blessing which is that you listen to the commandments’. As the classic commentator the Malbim (Meir Lobush, Poland C19th) notes, the wording suggests that the reason to follow these principles is not order to receive a blessing, but that building a society on these values is actually its own blessing and reward.
• Our choices affect ourselves – and our society: Moses’ command is unusual in another respect; it begins in the singular but continues in the plural. Every one of us, it suggests, must learn to see ourselves as bearing individual responsibility for the fate of the community. The significance of every individual, and the ability of each member of society to tilt the balance one way or the other, could not be made more vivid that by the picture of tribes equally balanced, on each mountaintop. Indeed, according to the Talmud (Tractate Shavuot 37b), it was at this very moment the Jewish people accepted the idea of communal responsibility.
• The Jewish people – chosen to choose: Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the dramatic description of the event quoted in the Mishna above is not the standing on the mountain or the blessing and the curse, but the short verse which follows. Once the ceremony was over, the Israelites brought stones and carved the words of the law in seventy languages. As Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, C19th) points out, at the very moment of making their choice, the Jewish people were to acknowledge that the values to which they committed themselves were not just national, but were universal. The Jewish people were chosen to choose, and by doing so to be the bearer of basic moral values to the world at large.
Modern Israel, situated as it is in the heart of the Middle East, finds itself almost as much of an anomaly in terms of the values it represents as did the ancient Israelites. In committing ourselves to preserve basic rights and freedoms, even in the face of pressures and challenges, the ancient ceremony recorded in this portion reminds us that the establishment of a just society is a reward in itself, that this effort has to be made by every individual to affect society at large, and that in building such a society we are carrying a message to our region and the world at large.
In others’ words
“Jewish legend tells of a tyrant who would play a cruel trick on his subjects. Holding a tiny bird in his hands he would ask, on pain of death, whether the bird was alive or dead. If the subject answered “dead”, the tyrant would release the bird; if the answer was: “alive”, he would crush the bird between his hands.
“One day a wise sage was brought to the tyrant and asked the question: ‘Is the bird alive or dead?’ The sage, aware of the tyrant’s trap, thought long and hard. ‘The answer to that question,’ he said finally, ‘lies in your hands.’”
Ambassador Dore Gold, Statement before Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, July 1997
On a lighter note
A Rabbi, a cantor, and a synagogue president were driving to a seminar when they were kidnapped. After stealing their money, the kidnappers told them that they could choose one final request before they were killed.
“My last wish,” began the Rabbi, is to give a fascinating, complicated, long sermon that I have always wanted to but never been allowed to give.”
“We will grant your wish,” the hijackers replied.
“My last wish,” said the cantor, “is to sing a beautiful, Yemenite style song, one of my own composition, lasting two hours. I have never been allowed to sing it.”
“We’ll let you sing it,” replied the hijackers.
“What is your last wish?” the hijackers asked the synagogue president.
“Please, please shoot me now.”