by Rabbi Jordi Gendra,
Temple Beth Shalom
of Greater Harrisburg, Mechanicsburg PA
And Moses charged the people the same day, saying, “These shall stand upon Mount Gerizim to bless the people when ye have come over the Jordan: Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Joseph, and Benjamin. And these shall stand upon Mount Ebal to curse: Reuben, Gad, and Asher, and Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. And the Levites shall speak, and say unto all the men of Israel with a loud voice:…
” (Deuteronomy 27:11-14).
The Mishnah (Sotah 7,5) recasts this story into a much more dramatic scenario. Six tribes stand on top of Mt. Gerizin; the other six stand on top of Mt. Ebal, while the Levites stay on the valley in-between the mountains.
What an interesting scenario! We would expect that the person addressing the audience would stand on a podium, always above the audience, in order to be heard clearly and to communicate the message. At Sinai, when the Torah was given, God was on top of the mountain while the Israelites waited for Moses at the bottom of the mountain. So why does the Torah reverse the positions, placing the audience at a higher position than the speaker?
It all depends on what the ultimate goal is. When God gave the Torah to Israel, God stood higher to infuse awe into the people and to lead them to accept the Torah, at risk of being crushed by the mountain, as the Midrash reminds us. But in our text, the Levites, the ones uttering the blessings and the curses, the warnings and encouragements, teaching and delivering speeches, have the moral obligation to take people seriously and with respect. So Levites speak to the tribes standing above them on the mountains.
This should be our teachers’, our rabbis’, our lay leaders’ attitude when dealing with the congregation. Even if one stands higher, on a podium or speaks from a chair above the congregation, one should not berate people or force them, but rather do the opposite. One should try to convince, to appeal to their souls and to touch their hearts. One should teach and reach out to people and help them understand what’s good and what’s bad, so that they will make the best decisions by themselves, rather than our imposing on them a course of action that they do not fully grasp.
It is true that building consensus is not the easiest, most convenient or the fastest thing to do. It takes time, and no doubt our generation is guilty of impatience. We want it here, immediately. Unfortunately this attitude has led us too often to impose rather than trying to explain, to educate and to encourage people. Too many times, we have used our power to coerce instead of using our skills to persuade.
In this month of Elul, it is useful for us to think about all of this and to ask for forgiveness for our arrogance of thinking of ourselves as above our congregations when the Torah commands us to talk to our congregants with humility as we convey the deep values enshrined in our Torah.