Thursday, 10 Aug 2023

Written by Timothy Motz

As my family will tell you, I can be painfully slow choosing food in a restaurant. Even now, the only thing that’s helped has been becoming vegetarian, meaning I only have two options per course. And when I go to a vegetarian restaurant, that doesn’t work either.

Just as decisions are hard in a restaurant, they are all the harder when their effects will have a long-lasting effect on our lives and the world. Big decisions require not just intent, but also a plan of how we’ll put them in to practice. Without both of those things, decisions don’t usually come to fruition. We’ve all been in a position where we thought we were making a choice, but we didn’t work out a plan to follow through on it. The desired change probably didn’t happen.

But putting off a decision usually doesn’t work either. When there is a life choice to be made, a failure to act represents a decision in itself – it means that we choose the status quo, the path of least resistance. A failure to make a choice is, at best, avoidance; at worst, it can enable awful outcomes, for the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.

As we approach the end of Torah, it can seem that Gd’s hundreds of commandments to the Israelites are being condensed into ever clearer moral terms: there is life or death, blessing or curse. It is the starkest of choices. In a few weeks time, just before Rosh Hashanah, we will receive Gd’s searing plea: “choose life!”

This week, in parshat Re’eh, the Torah introduces the dichotomy for the first time:

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of your God Adonai that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of your God Adonai but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods.

Four weeks from now, as we enter the High Holydays and stand before Gd, it will be time for us to make our final choice: blessing or curse. This week, the Torah foreshadows that decision, allowing us to think about our options in advance: to start to make a plan.

Gd tells us “Choose life!” Rashi explains this is like a parent who says to their child, “Choose for yourself a good portion of my real estate” and leads them to the best fields, saying, “Choose this!” Gd lays out the options of blessing and curse, and clearly tells us which one to pick. But then, who would choose differently? Why would anyone choose curse over blessing?

Perhaps it is because our choice is not just about our intent, but also about the actions that we take, or don’t take, as a result.

As we read this week’s parashah, we find that blessing and curse are not, in fact, abstract concepts. Gd is, very literally, setting before us specific blessings, and specific curses, and telling us how to use them. Gd sets out a ceremony to be performed after the Israelites cross the River Jordan. To a modern reader, the ceremony is esoteric and hard to picture: after crossing the Jordan, half of the tribes are to gather on Mount Gerizim, and half on the adjacent Mount Ebal, while the Levites remain on the plain in between. (Mount Gerizim is today the centre of the Samaritan community; Mount Ebal is to its north; and the plain between them is the site of modern Nablus.) The Levites will call out a list of blessings and curses, and there will be a representative group of tribes on each mountain to receive both.

The curses are specific and cruel:

Though you plant and tend vineyards, they will be eaten by worms, and you will have to wine to drink or store.

 The blessings are comforting, wide-ranging, and more general:

Blessed will you be in your comings, and blessed will you be in your goings.

The symmetry of the ceremony presents curses as a counterbalance to blessing. They cannot be brushed off. Curse and blessings both contribute to the tapestry of our lives.

The People of Israel had a concrete ceremony to choose between the two. Sending the whole people of Israel up two separate mountains, with the Levites ranged between, would have been a great undertaking. The elaborateness of the ceremony is a reminder today that it requires work to earn ourselves a blessing, and to reject curse.

The drama also reminds me of the lonely goat that the People of Israel led into the desert on Yom Kippur, bearing their sins unto Azazel. Our ancestors used deeply visceral ceremonies to facilitate their moral choices. It is impossible to know the emotional reaction that ancient Israelites would have had to these processes, but I imagine that the defined choreography, its effort and ritual, helped them to make good decisions and to be better people.

For most of us today, however, dramatic ceremonies are not the way we improve ourselves morally. We rely on cerebral, largely individual, mental processes. Without the same structure, how do we cleanse our souls before Gd? Without choosing Mount Gerizim over Mount Ebal, or sending a goat into the wilderness, how do we choose blessing over curse?

This is a question for us all to answer throughout the year, but in the weeks approaching Yom Kippur, when we will declare our grave choice between life or death, it is particularly urgent.

This week’s parashah gives us suggestions of how we might act. Most broadly, we are to observe all of Gd’s laws and rules. Those given this week range from the universal:

There shall be no poverty among you

 to the highly specialised:

You shall not eat blood

There are also rules about remission of debts, care of Levites, tithes, and more. In fact, the list of rules following the introduction of the blessing/curse dichotomy is so great that we can scarcely make sense of it on a surface-level reading. The way for us to work out our route away from curse and towards blessing is to spend time in reflection on Gd’s commandments, and to come up with a plan we ourselves can enact. To follow the path that we want in life, it’s not enough simply to face in the right direction: we need our actions to support our life choices every day. Even if we choose blessing, the multiplicity of smaller choices we make through the year will be tough. We need a specific plan of value-based actions. As we look back over the past year, we can learn from our mistakes, know what works, and work out a strategy for how to be better this year.

That way, we won’t be making decisions inadvertently by putting off our choices. We will not, through a lack of action, be the good people who allow evil to rise up in the world. Rather we can take our place on Mount Gerizim, the mountain where we receive blessing, and refute a life of curse.

This choice between blessing, life and curse is ongoing, to be made every day of our lives. On Yom Kippur, we will declare our chosen path to the Ruler of the Universe. The rest of the year, we must plan how we will walk it.

Timothy Motz LBC rabbinic student

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