By Rabbi Nathan Martin
In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, Moses mentions the communal ritual of the calling out of the blessings and curses from the two mountains of Grizim and Ebal straddling the sacred site of Shechem.
In a kind of Ten Commandments repetition, the ritual sets up the priests and Levites — with the ark — in the middle of the valley between the two mountains. They offer a blessing for right behavior to one mountain, and then offer the parallel curse for equivalent bad behavior toward the other mountain.
The 12 tribes — six on each mountain — affirm these. The blessings and curses are a familiar — how to follow the divine path (e.g. not making false idols) and how to behave ethically toward each other, particularly our most vulnerable (e.g., don’t misdirect a blind person or oppress the widow and the orphan).
I find the mention of this ritual to have some interesting resonances for our current moment, a time when we are having to discern the ethical path through unknown territory.
First, this ritual is quite embodied. The Israelites have to climb the mountains and shout out affirmations for right and wrong behavior. Our ancestors understood that for the ethics to get inside our kishkes we have to create an experience that allows us to imprint these onto ourselves.
While most of the time I feel like what is being imprinted on my body these days is more fear and trauma, I wonder what it would be like to frame the positive and ethical behaviors we take each day in the light of blessing. For example, before exercise you might say aloud, “blessed are those who care for their bodies,” or before supporting a front line worker with tzedakah (charity) or making a mask you might say “blessed are those who support the vulnerable.”
This could also work for the justice work we are called to do at this moment of standing up for Black lives (“blessed are those who support justice”), for sustaining democratic processes (“blessed are those who support a voice for all”) or for advocating for our planet’s health (“blessed are those who protect the Earth”). Giving ourselves an additional moment to truly feel the meaning of these blessings allows their message to be felt in our cells. Creating an embodied memory connected to right action grounds us; it can help us to counter the ethically confusing messages we are exposed to and allows us to remember in our bodies the right things to do.
Secondly, this ritual is fully communal. All of Israelite society at that moment had a role to play in affirming right behavior. In this moment of isolation where we are maintaining physical distance from others it can be hard to remember that we are deeply interconnected, that our behavior and intentions matter.
While we all can’t crowd together on a mountain, what we can do is to try to weave together our threads of “tribal” connection. There is no one in our country who is not deeply affected by the challenges we are facing. We can make a practice today of reaching out to a friend, a family member, a colleague, to simply listen or offer support.
Even the simple and sacred practice of truly listening to someone for five minutes and helping them be heard and affirmed builds bonds of connection. It puts us together on the mountain of Grizim and Ebal.
Finally, this ritual is sacred. It takes place in the mountains that surround Shechem, the place of sacred encounter where Abraham first encounters God and is told to begin his journey. When the Israelites return there many generations later, they are reenacting sacred encounter by ascending high places (echoing Sinai) and centering themselves around the ark (echoing the sanctuary).
In this moment, we, too, are being called to dedicate our lives to the sacred, to participate in and create practices and rituals that will help us align with our highest selves and aspirations. In a moment when the voices of fear and dissension are trying to separate us from others, it is all the more critical to tie into the sacred practices — like the words of the Shema or a chant of “Ve’ahavta Le-re’ekha Kamokha/Love your neighbor as yourself” that reinforce our underlying unity or connection.
Like our ancestors on these mountains, our sacred practice can become our compass that guides us along the right path.
While we may not have the opportunity like our ancestors to climb a mountain together and cultivate moral clarity, we do have our own path today to seek the sacred, connect with others and internalize and align our moral compass. May we all rise in body and spirit to the occasion.
Rabbi Nathan Martin is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel of Media and also serves on the board of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light, a nonprofit focused on interfaith action around climate change. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.