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Moses' Choice is Stark One: Blessing or Curse
Although we know that we have five senses with which to apprehend the world, we tend to rely heavily on our sense of sight. We say, "Seeing is believing," and when we can't see something, we have a hard time believing it's really there.
This week's Torah reading addresses this problem in the moral realm. When we are making a moral decision, a choice between two paths, we usually can't see the full consequences to which either path will lead us.
But what if we could? What if we could see in advance exactly what would happen if we made either choice? Would that change how we acted in this world?
In parshah Re'eh, Moses presents the Israelites with a stark choice: blessing or curse. If they listen to God's commandments and follow the path of Torah, their lives and those of their descendants will be full of blessing. If they do not listen, if they turn away from the path that Moses has spent so long teaching them to follow, then dire curses will befall them.
But for Moses, the ultimate teacher, just talking with the Israelites about this is not enough. Moses worries that if they can't see the consequences of their actions before their eyes, they will still make the wrong choice.
So he provides an object lesson, detailed in Rashi's commentary (based on the Talmud and on next week's parshah). The Israelites are to climb two mountains, Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, arranging themselves so that six tribes are on each mountain. The Levites stand in the middle, in the valley between these two mountains.
Turning toward Mount Gerizim, lush and green, the Levites recite the blessings that follow from Torah. For example, they cry, "Blessed is the one who shall not make a graven or molten image!" And the Israelites on that mountain reply, "Amen."
Then, turning toward Mount Eval, harsh and rocky, the Levites recite the curses that follow from abandoning Torah. For example, they cry, "Cursed is the one who shall make a graven or molten image!" And the Israelites on that mountain say, "Amen."
In this "teachable moment," the Israelites are given a chance to "see" the consequences of their actions in tangible, visual form. The starkness of the contrast between the two mountains and the image of the Levites standing in the valley and the tribes arranged on the slopes are designed to stick in the Israelites' memory.
Moses seems to be saying to them, "This is what blessing looks like! This is what curse looks like! When you have a choice to make, remember this! Remember!"
We have the same problem as the ancient Israelites. When we have a moral choice to make, we often make it without seeing the consequences that are likely to flow from it. Even if we vaguely intuit that there is something important at stake, we often base our decision on what is in front of our eyes at the moment, not paying attention to hidden costs or after-effects that we cannot see.
Like our ancestors, we need Torah to open our eyes, to enlarge our vision so that we see our actions in a larger context, and so that we, too, choose blessing and not curse.
The ancient rabbis taught that the world is perfectly balanced between good and evil, and our next action may tip the balance. May we be able to "see" clearly enough to make the right choice.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected].