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Friday, August 17, 2012

Parshat Re'eh and Rosh Hodesh Elul: Living Between Blessing and Curse

This week's parashah/portion, Re'eh (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17), is a continuation of Moses's 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 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, what will follow if they turn away from "the path that I enjoin upon you and follow other gods."

This powerful ritual 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, 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, since Moses is speaking to all of the people. 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 instead 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, as I see it, is simply 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 out. Seeking this elusive, and false, path leads us to ignore "proper path." It is also the root of suffering for so many.

The metaphor for this 'improper' path is “following other gods." In my mind, this represents any path that leads us away from the One God, and from the Oneness of the Universe. According to many traditions, including Judaism, the proper path is the middle way or the golden mean. Following or clinging to 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 pay attention and look within and around us.

This concept is symbolized most vividly by the traversing of the two mountains 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, in the form of tyranny and oppression, is to be found. It is not separate from God, but rather the "Other Side" of God, as it were.  For if all is One, then nothing is truly separate.

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.

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. 

This Shabbat is also Rosh Hodesh Elul, the celebration of the new Hebrew month of Elul.  This is the last month before Rosh Hashanah/the New Year.  It is meant to be a month of introspection, renewal and return.  It prepares us for the intense work of teshuvah/repentance that is the essence of the 10 days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur.

Interestingly, Elul is immediately proceeded by the month of Av. This is a month mostly dedicated to mourning and lamentation.  For tradition tells us that on the Ninth Day of Av/Tisha B'Av, both Holy Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed.  The first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE.  And so, as Av ends we are thrust immediately into the early phase of the teshuvah/repentance process.  

The ancient rabbis taught that the Hebrew letters of the word Elul were an acronym for the verse from the biblical book of Shir ha'Shirim/ Song of Songs "Ani L'dodi V'dodi Li, I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine".  And so the month of introspection is meant to remind us that we are God's beloved and God is ours.  It is from this place of relational and covenantal love that we are meant to approach the Yamim Nora'im/Days of Awe (Rosh Ha'Shanah through Yom Kippur).

However, this Shabbat is actually not the first day of the month of Elul.  Rather, it is the 30th day of the  month of Av.  For Elul is one of the months with a two day Rosh Hodesh/New Moon celebration, and the first day of this celebration is the last day of Av.  So in fact, on this Shabbat we are both in the month of mourning and destruction and the month that begins the process of rebirth and renewal.  In short, we are living simultaneously in the realms of blessing and curse.  

The rabbis saw the destruction of the Second Temple as a punishment (read: curse) from God for the senseless, baseless hatred that ran rampant through the people of Jerusalem, causing them to be at war with each other. Therefore, Av represents the punishment and curse brought about by sinat hinam/baseless hatred, whereas Elul represents ahavat hinam, unconditional love brought about by a relationship with the Divine.  The former is brought about by human beings forgetting the Oneness of the Universe that we call God and separating themselves from one another.  The latter is brought about by remembering and maintaining a relationship with God through maintaining through love and relationship with humanity and all of creation. 

And so, as we enter this Shabbat/Rosh Hodesh Elul, let us remember that both blessing and the curse, love and hatred, are both present within and around us.  They are both in our hearts and in the places we might consider to be 'the other side,' those we are in danger of viewing as other.  Let us do our best this day, every day and every moment, to embrace love and reject hatred. Let us remember the One that is all of creation  and reject the illusion of the many and otherness which separates and divides the world. In that way, we will be ready to enter our Promised Land, the place of wholeness, peace, joy and love, which our world is meant to be.

Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov (a good month)

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