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Home » Free Choice, Ki Tavo, Questions of Ethics

Ki Tavo: A Matter of Perspective

Submitted by on September 2, 2017 – 10:39 pmNo Comment | 2,651 views

Blessing and Curse

When you stand in Samaria, in the city of Shechem (Nablus), and look south and north, you quickly gain perspective. You see, Shechem is nestled between two great mountains, mount Gerizim to its south and Mount Ebal to its north. Gerizim has a natural spring, and is semi lush. Ebal is mostly barren. These two mountains present a powerful contrast. A contrast that becomes poignant when we learn that one mountain is associated with right, and the other with wrong.

Before they entered the Holy Land, Moses instructed our ancestors to visit these mountains. Upon arrival, six tribes should climb mount Gerizim and the other six should stand on Ebal . He then instructed the priests to carry the Holy Ark into the valley between the mountains and call out blessings toward Gerizim and curses toward Ebal.

Cursed is he who crafts an idol, called the priests, and from mount Ebal came the resounding cry, Amen. Cursed is he who degrades his parents, the priests called again, and again came the call of Amen in response. And so it went, curse by curse, the priests called the curses, and the six tribes said Amen.[1]

That these mountains face off, blessing against curse, one rather lush, the other nearly barren, is a dramatic point of distinction. Blessing and curse are definitively different and can never be confused. There is no moral equivalency between right and wrong, good and bad. From Shechem you can turn south toward Jerusalem and encounter blessing, or north, away from Jerusalem, and encounter curse.

The Missing Blessing

You, astute reader, have certainly noticed a glaring omission from my description. I wrote that Gerizim was the mount of blessing, yet I failed to describe the blessings that took place there.

I omitted it because the Torah omits it. The Torah relates all the curses that the priests directed toward Ebal, but glosses over the blessings that were directed toward Gerizim. Our sages came along and explained that the very curses directed toward Ebal were reversed when directed to Gerizim.

If they pronounced curses on those who craft idols and degrade their parents, they heaped blessing on those who don’t. Blessed is the man who does not carve idols or debase his parents, called the priests, toward Gerizim. And from the six tribes on the southern slope came the rejoinder, Amen.

If the priests directed blessings toward Gerizim, why did the Torah neglect to describe it? Perhaps it is because the Torah did not want to double its words. If it described all the curses, it is self understood that the opposite, are blessings. Yet, the Torah could just as easily have described the blessings and let us deduce the curses.

Matter of Perspective

Allow me to offer a suggestion.[2] Perhaps the Torah is trying to teach us that despite the profound gulf between good and bad, the definitive difference and absolute lack of moral equivalency between right and wrong, they are closer than we might think.

Although good stands on one mountain and bad on the other mountain, each utterly unrelated to the other, they have the same point of emergence: the valley’s midpoint, where south meets north. The priests, who uttered both the blessings and the curses, stood in the very same place. Further, the very actions that they described in the negative as curses are the precise actions they described in the positive as blessings. What determines whether they are blessings or curses, is perspective.

And perspective spells the entire difference. If you perceive them as curses, you are facing Ebal. If you perceive them as blessings, you have turned your back on Ebal and face Gerizim.

Let me be clear: murder is evil no matter how you dress it up. When I speak of perspective I refer to the prohibition itself. Do you see that prohibition of murder as a cursed restriction, or as a blessed gift?

That depends on perspective. If you are a hateful vengeful person who would love to wreak havoc, you will see the prohibition against murder as a curse. If you are a potential victim and a peace-loving person, you will see this prohibition as a blessing.

The Torah describes the curses and not the blessings because the Torah’s prohibitions are ubiquitous and known to all. The Torah is filled with restrictions. We may not shop or cook on Shabbat. We may not cook or eat milk with meat. We may not worship Idols. We may not gossip. We may not eat bread during Passover. We may not eat period on Yom Kippur.

So many restrictions; if you choose to see them as such. If you chafe at the bit and wish you could lift them, you view them as curses. But there is another perspective. By giving us laws that guide our lives, we can connect with G-d as we go through our day. When we are hungry and want to eat, we eat the way G-d tells us to. When we don’t perform weekday tasks on Shabbat, we get to spend one day a week with G-d, immersed in holiness. When we refrain from gossip, we are not only respecting our fellow, we are obeying G-d.

Each of these mundane activities are elevated to holy moments of ecclesiastic worship. Shopping, walking, chopping and cooking, all become religious experiences. Our lives become G-dly. What a blessing. So you see, when we change perspective, curses become blessings.

By using the same examples for blessing and curse and by pronouncing the curse and leaving us to infer the blessing, G-d leads us along a path of thought, to a conclusion that He wants us to reach. Every time you encounter a restriction, says G-d, go deeper, and you will see a blessing.

Daily Perspective

Students once asked the Baal Shem Tov: it says that G-d determines our fate once a year, on Rosh Hashanah, but it also says that G-d determines our fate each day. How can both teachings be true?

The Baal Shem Tov responded by asking an old man how his day had been. The man replied that he was old and too tired to work, yet he could not retire because he had children to raise. He complained about his aches and pains and walked away sighing. The next day the Baal Shem Tov asked the same man, how his day had been. This time he replied that he was grateful to have work so he could provide for his children, and despite his advanced age and many aches, thank G-d, he can still get through his day.

You see, said the Baal Shem Tov to his students. G-d decides our fate once a year. We decide each day, whether this fate will be a blessing or a curse. It’s all a matter of perspective.

[1] Deuteronomy 27:11-26. See also Joshua 8:33-34.

[2] Many commentators have grappled with this question. See Kli Yakar, Haamek Davar and others ad loc.