by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein,
, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (Twitter: @cityshul)
The longest parsha of the book of Deuteronomy, Re’eh begins with a simple statement in chapter 11, verse 26: “
See! I am placing before you blessing and curse
.” It seems like a choice, a gift freely given, a true example of free will. Yet the first verse continues with this clear caveat: “The blessing: if you obey the commandments of God your Lord, which I am prescribing to you today; the curse: if you do not obey the commandments of God your Lord, and you go astray from the path that I am prescribing for you today, following other gods.”
Is there truly a choice to be made, or to be had here? In the midrash, in Deuteronomy Rabbah 4:2, Rabbi Levi compared our verse to a master who offered his servant a golden necklace if the servant would do the master’s will, or iron chains if he did not. What a “choice”! It is like a parent who places a cabbage and a piece of chocolate cake in front of their toddler and says, “You can have the chocolate cake if you eat all your vegetables, but if you don’t eat them all you can have the cabbage.” How free are any of our choices when we are in relationship with one (or in this case, One) who is more powerful than us?
The Torah then continues in verse 29 to describe how the curses are to be “placed”: the blessing on Mount Gerizim, and the curse on Mount Ebal. The Hebrew verb directed at Moses in verse 29 “
shall place” – is the same as that used by God speaking of Divine action in verse 26, “
re’eh anochi notan lifnachem
place before you (all) the blessing and the curse…” In the joining of these two verbs, there is a subtle restoration of balance to the inequality of the relationship between blessing-bestower and blessing-receiver. God places, and we place too. God pronounces blessings, and we pronounce too. God sends forth curses, and we send our own too. Instead of the blessing and the curse being a choice we are
, they become a choice we can
. We can step out of seeing ourselves only in a passive role in our relationship with the Divine.
These two mountains are interesting, as well. A mountain filled with blessings and then a mountain filled with curses. Both placed simultaneously, we are always standing in the middle, looking to this one or that one for direction. Do we head toward the mountain of blessing? Or do we head toward the mountain of curses? What happens in between those two mountains is critical. There the choice of path must be made. Our verse 26 begins in the singular, addressed to each person individually: “see –
”, but concludes in the plural, addressed to the whole people: “before you ‘all’ –
.” Each individual, standing in between those two mountains, must make his or her choice. But their choice affects a whole nation. There we also choose as a community. And there, between those two points of blessing and curse, we move from autonomous beings to a community – when we choose
a path of righteousness. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that the emphasis on the word “before you” teaches us that it is utterly our own choice “to create the one or other for ourselves” (Hirsch,
Commentary on the Torah
; Deuteronomy, p. 194). How much more as a community can we create the one or the other for our companions!
This idea of choosing between blessing and curse is brought to a climax in Parshat Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 30:19, where God declares: “
See! This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live
.” There too, the word
appears. This word see ties our two portions together in a deep way. We must constantly be reminded to see that choice is before us always. Choice is revealed every day, much like Torah which is constantly revealed. Would anyone choose curses, evil, and death? It seems obvious but it isn’t; all we have to do is look at human history. It’s not cabbage or chocoate cake placed in front of us by a loving but despotic Parent – it is the valley we walk through freely, between two mountains. As long as the choice for curse is on a mountain we can see, we must be vigilant and ready to cross over to the other mountain of blessing.