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It's a Matter of Seeing the Path Straight Ahead

August 28, 2008 By:
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
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"See [re'eh] this day I set before you a blessing and a curse: A blessing when you listen (tishme'u) to the commandments of the Lord your God ... and a curse if you do not listen to the commandments ... you shall give the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Eyval ... ."

This rather momentous exhortation contains a number of linguistic and conceptual problems: First of all, the opening word, "see" (re'eh in Hebrew), is an imperative in the singular form; the verse goes on to state "when you listen" (Hebrew tishme'u), which is in second-person plural. Why the change?

Secondly, the text goes on to say that there will be a blessing "when you listen" (Hebrew asher tishme'u) and a curse "if you don't" (im lo tishme'u). Again, why the change?

Thirdly, why the necessity of the two high mountains surrounding Shechem (modern-day Nablus)? What do these mountains signify?

And, finally, the content of the blessings and curses come later on in the Bible with the concluding words being, "These are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to conclude with the children of Israel in the Land of Moab in addition to the covenant he had made with them at Horeb" (Mount Sinai). What is the significance of this added covenant just prior to their entry into Israel?

The two majestic mountains just outside of Shechem symbolize the difficult climb necessary for the Israelites to take in order for them to even begin to fulfill their God -- given the mandate of becoming a holy nation and a Kingdom of priest-teachers to the world. And, indeed, this is the third covenant we entered into with God just prior to our entry into the Land of Israel.

In addition to the Covenant at Sinai, the religious covenant of the Ten Commandments and the 613 laws of our Torah, we have a mission to become a light unto the nations of the world, at the very least to teach the seven universal laws of morality to all of the people of the globe.

Once the Israelites cross over the River Jordan -- at the place from which the Israelites first entered their land, and the logical place at which representatives of the world would later enter and exit the Jewish land -- they were commanded to set up large stones coated with plaster and write upon them these laws of morality "in a very clear manner of explanation."

'Every Hill and Mountain' 
These stones would graphically demonstrate our message to the whole of human civilization. Such a taxing and daunting universal task will seem less daunting when we consider the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who used the metaphor of the mountain in his great "I Have a Dream" speech to the American people in 1963. " ... I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight ... ."

Essentially, the way to bring the exalted and distant mountain within our grasp is to climb it, step by step, for each step of our ascent makes the mountain seem lower and lower.

In order for us to begin to carry out our mission to the world, we must first become a holy nation ourselves. The Bible tells us that the blessing will come when we keep the commandments in an immediate fashion.

After all, "the reward of a commandment is the commandment itself," the satisfaction we receive from helping a person in distress, the familial cohesiveness and inner peace we take with us as we observe the Sabbath day.

If, God forbid, we do not listen to the commandments, retribution may not come immediately, but eventually evil bears its own destructive fruits.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.


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