Thursday, 23 Jul 2020

Written by Iris Ferreira

Some images get stuck in the memory forever. I can still remember a day when I was twelve years old, walking in a foggy valley of the Pyrenees; I could see the path I was walking on, the ferns and brambles surrounding it, but not the mountains. All of a sudden, the fog disappeared and revealed the mountains, impressive masses scraping the sky. I still remember the feeling of awe and wonder I experienced at the feet of such giants, born before the birth of humanity, and which would still be standing after many generations have passed.


Mountains make us feel tiny and weak, insignificant sparks in the face of enduring and tremendously powerful elements. However, as they emerge from the earth in which they are rooted, they question us about our own roots and our place in the world.


In our parashah, Moses summarizes to the Hebrews all their travelling and hardships after going out of Egypt; in that narrative, mountains recurrently appear. Towards the beginning of Moses’ speech, Scripture says: “On the other side of the Jordan River, in the land of Moab, Moses expounded the Torah, saying:” (Deuteronomy 1:5). After such a verse, we would expect to read the commandments explained by Moses. But the next verses merely state: “The Eternal our God said to us at Horeb: you have dwelt enough on that mountain! Turn away, walk and go to the mountain of the Amorites…” (Deuteronomy 1: 6-7).

This injunction is surprising. It seems to imply that the actual content of the law is not so critical: what matters is to leave the mountain where the law has been given.


It seems to mean that one shall not stay at the place where they grew up and learned. After the Hebrews have received the Torah and studied it, they shall not remain motionless but go to another land, bringing the law with them. It also means that a legal system, a tradition, a covenant with the Eternal is not linked to the place where it originated, but that it accompanies human beings wherever they go. And going forward appears as a necessity.


The command to “leave the mountain” may mean that one has to depart from their roots, so as to keep on developing through new discoveries and experiments. Mountains are reassuring, for they represent strength and stability. This is certainly the reason why the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are compared to mountains. We could be tempted not to move from their shelter, in the same way as the Edomites and the Amorites in our parashah dwell in their own mountains which they do not leave, and that they protect from strangers. But this is not what we were supposed to do: we have to go forward.


On their way, the Hebrews went to the mountain of Seir around which they stayed for a long time. It seems that they were stuck at this place. Indeed, mountains can also represent an obstacle. They stand upright in front of us, blocking our way; it is not always easy to ascend on them or to find another path around them. It may require a long preparation and unsuccessful attempts to pass before we can move on.


Thus, a “mountain” can represent something which frightens us, discourages us, poses us difficulties and keeps on blocking us. In Jeremiah 13:16, the mountain is a place of darkness which makes people stumble. Thus, as many other things, the symbol of the mountain is two-fold: it can be protective and supportive, as a place of origin where we feel secure; but it can also be an obstacle, something which threatens us.


But at some point, we shall succeed in overcoming these difficulties. After the Hebrews have stayed around mount Seir for a long time, the Eternal finally says to them: “You have turned enough around this mountain; turn to the north!” (Deuteronomy 2:3). So the Hebrews have finally become ready to go past this mountain and to keep on journeying toward the Promise Land.

The commentator Keli Yaqar says that the verse Deuteronomy 2:3 which speaks about the “north” can allude to the future exiles of the Jewish people in northern countries. According to him, the similarity between the Hebrew words tzafonah, “to the north”, and lehatzpin, “to hide”, alludes to the fact that, when we are exiled in a country where we face enmity, it is better to hide our wealth so as not to arouse jealousy in our enemies, for they would finally dispossess us.

This commentary can make us think that mountains are also places where treasures are hidden. Amethysts and other precious stones can be found in their caves and tunnels.

However, these treasures are not necessarily material riches, they can also be of a spiritual nature. In the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 64a), Rav Yossef is called “Sinai” while Rabbah is called “uprooter of mountains”. Rav Yossef probably owes his nickname to his extensive knowledge of Torah. According to Rashi’s commentary, the nickname of Rabbah comes from his sharp-minded spirit which refined his knowledge.

In other words, Rabbah “uprooted the mountain” by uncovering all hidden meanings which were contained in it.


So the mountain can represent the stability of our origins, of a history and a tradition we can rely on. However we have to depart from it in order to find our own place in the world. Sometimes, we may encounter other mountains which rise before us as stumbling blocks. But if we keep with us the treasures hidden in the mountain of our roots, we shall find a way to overcome these obstacles.


Iris Ferreira LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.