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Tell It On the Mountain

Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of the Lord, your God that I command you today. And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of the Lord, your God ... You shall deliver the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal. (Deut. 11:26-29)

This passage is a cryptic summation of a ceremony that is described in detail in Parshat Ki Tavo (Deut. 27:11-26). According to Rashi's understanding, the Levites stood between the two mountains, while six tribes stood on Mount Grizim and six on Mount Ebal. The Levites turned towards Mount Grizim and said eleven blessings, and then turned towards Mount Ebal and uttered the eleven curses mentioned there, the flip side of those blessings.

But it is difficult to understand the point of such a ceremony. The blessings are a result of hearkening to the words of God as explained here, whereas the curses are the consequences of not doing so. What does all this have to do with mountains and Levites and all the tribes standing there divided into two groups? Why are these specific commandments singled out to serve as the basis for the blessings and curses? How can we relate to blessings being associated with one geographic location and curses with another?


To thoroughly examine this issue we must begin by explaining the relationship of the individual with the Jewish people, a concept known as Klal Israel.

Now, you are my sheep, the sheep of My pasture, you are adam ["man"]; I am your God -- the word of the Lord the Lord God. (Ezekiel 34:31)

In Hebrew Jews are called adam, meaning man. This is a collective noun -- the entire people are considered one collective person.

The unity of the individual is a matter of physical integrity. Each individual man has his own physical presence and occupies his own particular space. But the unity of many individuals is a spiritual matter; a people has no particular physical presence or integrity.

In this sense the Jewish people are rendered one by the fact that they are all loyal to the Torah, and are therefore not only dedicated to the same spiritual aim or goal, but also pledged to arrive at this goal by following the same route -- the faithful observance of the commandments of the Torah. Thus a prerequisite of Torah acceptance was:

And Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain (Exodus, 19:1) as one man, with one heart. (Mechilta, Jethro,1)

Every Jew has two aspects to his identity. He exists as an individual, and as an appendage of the Jewish people. The Shmoneh Esreh prayer, the most important prayer we say, authored for us by the Members of the Great Assembly to carry out our Torah obligation to pray, is expressed entirely in the plural. We do not say, "cure me" or "bless me" and the like, we say "cure us," and "bless us."

At first glance this seems to be a halachically invalid way to pray. Maimonides explains (Laws of Prayer, 1,2), that the commandment to pray requires one to state his own personal needs to God daily. In light of this obligation how could the Members of the Great Assembly, who surely knew the law have authored a prayer for us that is entirely expressed in the plural as a means of carrying out this obligation?

The answer is that we express our individual needs in the context of our identity as members of the great composite man, Klal Israel. As all Jews comprise a single adam, the problems of the individual Jew take on an enhanced importance, for they interfere with the ability of the composite Klal Israel from being able to function properly.

The body is made up of its various appendages. The needs of the individual are also the needs of Klal Israel. Knowing this, the Members of the Great Assembly taught us to couch our requests in the context of public rather than private need, as their enhanced importance is a better guarantee of a favorable response.


A more striking illustration of this principle of unity is provided by the commandments themselves. We have 613 commandments 365 negative and 248 positive. The 248 positive commandments correspond to the limbs of a person as listed by the Mishna in Kelim 1. Yet many of the commandments are addressed to the Kohen or the Levite, some only to the court, while some are only incumbent on the King. Some commandments are ones that we hope will never come up, such as the one to divorce one's wife under certain circumstances, or to marry a brother's wife when he dies without children. Still others can only be carried out in Israel and, for the 2,000 years of exile, were beyond our reach through no fault of our own. But the Ari wrote that the perfection of the person requires the carrying out of all the commandments. How can this be reconciled?

The answer once again is to be found in the unity of Klal Israel. The Torah was not given to individual Jews but to Klal Israel. Individuals are required to observe it in the context of the Covenant of Sinai which was made with Klal Israel and not with individuals. Individuals may be obligated under its terms, but it is Klal Israel that is the signatory party. As long as every individual Jew carries out the Torah obligations that fall on him, Klal Israel is observing the Torah. The observance of Klal Israel reverberates to benefit all individual Jews.

Torah observance is a collective responsibility as much as it is an individual obligation. Its benefits are collectively shared while the consequences of non- compliance must be suffered by all Jews.

This dual system of individual versus Klal Israel is built into the workings of Divine Providence. The Gaon of Vilna points out that we find the following instruction in the order of battle as described in next week's Torah portion:

And who is the man who has betrothed a woman and not married her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will marry her. (Deut. 20:7)

Asks the Vilna Gaon: Jewish tradition teaches us that a person's fate is sealed on Yom Kippur. If a person was sealed for life on Yom Kippur he cannot be killed in battle, and if he was slated to die what good will it do him to avoid the battle? Surely, he will then die in some other fashion.

Answers the Vilna Gaon: Divine Providence relates to a person in two ways -- as an individual and as a member of Klal Israel. A war is a public event, an act of Klal Israel; individuals engage in warfare, but it is only the public that wages war. Divine Providence may have decreed that a certain number of Jewish soldiers should die in battle; these same soldiers may not be under any death sentence as individuals. Thus if a person stays to fight the battle he may die as a result of the collective decree; if he is sent home he may not die as there is no individual decree issued against him.


But how can a system of collective responsibility be applied against individuals? What can the individual do to prevent wrongdoing by the general public? How is it fair to punish anyone for the sin of another?

The rule is the following:

The hidden sins are for the Lord, our God, but the revealed sins are for us and our children forever, to carry out all the words of His Torah. (Deut. 29:28)

We, Klal Israel, cannot police people's hearts, that is a matter for God, but we are capable of maintaining a high standard of public Torah observance. People's public behavior, which does come under our scrutiny, must be held up to a high standard.

Because of the fact that we share each other's fate as members of Klal Israel, we cannot follow the principle that people's morality is a matter of their own private conscience. Every society feels entitled to adopt forceful measures to preserve the physical peace among its members despite the differing moral standards regarding the use of physical violence against other people prevalent in human society. We cannot allow anyone to harm another while we stand idly on the sidelines doing nothing.

In the same fashion, Klal Israel is entitled to enforce certain standards of Torah observance by the same principle. The moral actions of Jews affect the physical as well as the moral well-being of other Jews just as the various appendages of a single body affect each other.


We are finally getting to the crux of the matter. The Ohr Hachaim explains that the common thread that runs through the eleven sins referred to in the curses associated with Mount Ebal is that they take place in private, with the perpetrators insulated from public scrutiny. Klal Israel cannot police the way people speak to their parents, or illicit sexual practices that are engaged in behind closed doors, or any of the other matters mentioned. These are consequently "hidden sins" which are God's problem to deal with. But does that mean that Klal Israel is totally closed out of this area?

This is the significance of Mount Grizim and Mount Ebal -- "I present before you today a blessing and a curse." Even the consequences of private acts performed far from the public eye fall under the jurisdiction of Klal Israel. The blessing and the curse is each presented by God to the Jewish public body to distribute. All blessings flow through Klal Israel and the ultimate curse is to be severed from the body of Klal Israel in the manner of an appendage severed from the body. The uttering of the curses and the blessings by the Levites to the tribes standing on Mount Grizim and Mount Ebal is far from an empty ceremony.


Secular society is founded on the concept of tolerance. Private behavior is an expression of private morals and is no one's business. Such a concept is no doubt efficacious in preserving public harmony, but it has a very negative consequence when applied to the inner world of the individual. It allows the individual himself to maintain a different standard of morality in his private life than in his public life; he can internalize this attitude of social tolerance and apply it to his own inner world.

Humans have no obvious solution to this dilemma. We cannot possibly allow the public to encroach on people's private lives; this would result in a society based on vigilantism and suspicion; it would destroy social harmony and the love of one's fellow man. Yet by teaching tolerance we cannot prevent the evolution of double standards of morality given the weakness of individual human beings.

The Torah offers a solution to this problem as well. You cannot curse the private immorality of others if you are tolerant of it in your own life. God gave the power of issuing blessings and curses only to Klal Israel. As long as the Jewish people is clear on what is right and wrong and each individual Jew maintains this distinction in his private life, the blessing and the curse remain clearly separate, just as Mount Grizim and Mount Ebal are clearly separate. The geographic distinction of mountains is such, that they are clearly separable from one another. The blessings of God that flow through Klal Israel, reach the individual Jews that are deserving in the manner of tributaries that branch off rivers to irrigate the surrounding fields while the undeserving are cursed and cut off from the general flow.

But if confusion develops in individual Jews and they start maintaining a double standard between private and public morality, the sharp distinction between the blessings and the curses breaks down. The symbol of distinct mountains is no longer an apt representation of the gulf between what is blessed in the individual heart and what is accursed. In that case the blessing and the curse intermingle; our tolerance of our own weaknesses exposes us to the curse of God engendered by other people's weaknesses as well. We all become infected with each other's moral cancer and the social fabric of Klal Israel becomes weakened and destroyed.


But there is yet a deeper dimension to all of this. When Klal Israel committed the sin of building and serving the Golden Calf, God told Moses:

'Go descend -- for your people that you brought up from the land of Egypt has become corrupt.' (Exodus 32:7)

Rashi quotes the Talmud on this passage: "Descend from your spiritual height; I only allowed you to attain such a lofty spiritual level in their merit." (Brochot 32a)

Now there is no question that Moses the individual who did not participate in any way in this sin was fully deserving individually of his spiritual level. God Himself testified to Moses' great spiritual merit, but individual spiritual attainment and closeness to God is limited by the level of Klal Israel as a whole!

Upon reflection, this should not be surprising. The greatest possible blessing for a Jew is closeness to God. Like any other blessing, this must also flow through Klal Israel. If this is true in the negative, as in the case of Moses, how much more must this be so in the positive! Individual spiritual attainments reverberate to the benefit of all Jews. The greater the clarity of the distinction in the mind of the individual Jew between a blessing and a curse, between "hearkening to the word of God" and not paying attention, the greater will be the clarity of Klal Israel and the clearer the distinction between Mount Grizim and Mount Ebal.

Jewish tradition has always insisted that the Torah scholar should remain in the confines of the study hall immersed in the perusal of his holy books no matter what is going on in the world outside. Through the ages this has engendered much criticism by the world of the Talmud scholar and of the observant Jew that supports him. But all the blessings of God, among which spiritual clarity stands out as the most important flow into the world through the medium of Klal Israel. They can only flow freely when the understanding of the distinction between the blessings and the curses is as sharp and clear as the geographic separation between two mountains. Such clarity can only flow into Klal Israel through the intense labor of its Torah scholars who dedicate their lives to understanding the distinction.


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