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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Commentary on Parshat Re'eh

This week's Torah portion is Re'eh (Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17). This is a continuation of Moses' speech to the people before ascending Mt. Nebo to die. In this portion he warns the people that they face the choice between a life of blessings and a life of
curses. He also urges them to follow God's commandments once they settle in the land.

One of the most fascinating passages of the parashah/portion is when Moses describes the ritual that the people are to enact upon entering the Promised Land. The people are to stand between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, both of which are on the "other side" of the Jordan. A series of curses are then to be pronounced from Mount Ebal and a series of blessings from Mount Gerizim. The blessings represent what will happen if they follow God's mitzvot/commandments and the curses will follow if they turn away from "the path that I enjoin upon you and follow other gods."

This is followed immediately by the commandment for the people to utterly and completely destroy all the sites at which the other nations worshipped their gods in the land of Canaan and a warning that they are not to worship God in a like manner, but to "look only to the site that YHWH your God will choose" as the proper place for worship.

In reading this passage, a few facts caught my attention for the first time. First, I was struck by the fact that the words 'blessing' and 'curse' are in the singular. For some reason I always think of them as being in the plural form. In addition, I had forgotten that the two mountains were on the "other side" of the Jordan, and not in the land of Canaan. Finally, I was struck by the emphasis on not following the wrong path, but on following the path that is "enjoined" upon them.

When I imagine this scenario I can see the mountain of blessing and the mountain of curse looming ahead in the distance, and yet they are also inside each of us. We each have the power to bring blessing or curse upon ourselves through the choices we make and the actions we take. The fact that blessing and curse are singular can serve to remind us that, even though the "rewards and punishments" that we may receive as consequences for our actions may each seem unique and different, they are actually each a different manifestation of the one blessing and the one curse that actually exist.

The blessing, I believe, is the ability to accept life as it is and to follow the path "enjoined" upon us by God. The curse is to always believe that there is another, better path to seek, which then leads us to ignore "proper path."

The metaphor for this 'improper' path is “following other gods." In my mind, this improper path is simply any path that leads us away from the One God. According to many traditions, including Judaism, the proper path is the middle way or the golden mean. Clinging to any extreme or following a path that veers off in the extreme is dangerous and can bring 'the curse' upon us. Walking the middle way, as both Maimonides and the Buddha have taught, is the way that we are meant to walk. The beauty of this is that the middle path is where we are at this moment if we only look within and around us and notice it.

This concept is symbolized most vividly by traversing the two mountains as described in our text. These mountains, simultaneously within us and outside of us, represent the extremes that we are to avoid. For even the mountain of blessing can lead us on the wrong path if we follow it to the extreme. That is why the Israelites are commanded to stand at each mountain - first pronouncing the blessing at Gerizim and then the curse at Ebal. Only then can they continue on the path that goes between the mountains to the Promised Land.

The fact that the mountains are not in Canaan itself, but on the "other side" of the Jordan also struck me because the Aramaic words for "other side," Sitra Achra, is how the kabbalists/mystics refer to the source of evil in the world. It is an extension of Gevurah, the Divine attribute of strength, judgment and limitation. When this attribute is allowed to go to its extreme it gets out of control and that is where evil is to be found. It is not separate from God, but rather the "Other Side" of God, as it were.

The mountains are on the "other side" because they are not only part of us, but they also represent the dangers that lurk within and around us when we veer from the middle path and when we go to extremes. When we allow this to happen, what may just have been a temporary sense of 'blessing' or 'curse', 'reward' or 'punishment', 'happiness' or 'sadness' becomes an all consuming force that can engulf us and prevent us from living a life.

Therefore, the mountains are meant to be kept on the other side. We may visit them momentarily on the way to our own individual 'Promised Land' - the life that we are to live - but we must not linger, lest we allow ourselves to go astray. Yet they are always there in the distance serving as a focal point and reminding us of the possibility and the danger of lingering too long at either place, of veering too far in either direction, so that we leave the path that leads us to ourselves and to the Divine within.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Dear Rabbi Nathan,
I very much like the way you treat Re'eh symbolically as a metaphor for the choices that are occurring within our personalities.

I wish you good success in continuing to explore the deeper meaning of Torah and the way it guides us to restore our Unity with Hashem.
Steve Sufian

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