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August 27, 2010 6:23 pm

Ki Savo: A Tale of Two Mountains

avatar by Yosef Y. Jacobson

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A new teacher was trying to make use of her psychology courses. She started her class by saying, “Everyone who thinks he’s stupid, please stand up!”

After a few seconds, little Johnny stood up. The teacher was surprised, but realized this was an opportune moment to help the poor child. “Do you think you’re stupid, Johnny?” she asked. “Why do you feel so my dear child”?

“No, ma’am,” Johnny replied, “but I hated to see you standing there all by yourself!”

A Visit to the North

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During a visit to Israel, I traveled to the twin mountains of Gerizim and Ebal, to stand on the soil my ancestors treaded 3,274 years ago, during a historic moment when they had just entered the Promised Land.

Located in the north of Israel, in the area known today as Samaria (Shomron), towering over the now infamous city of Shechem (Nablus) and the gravesite of Joseph, the two majestic mountains dominate the horizon for the many Jewish settlements located in that area.

As I entered into the wellspring flowing on Mt. Gerizim for a spiritual pre-Sabbath cleansing, I closed my eyes, and allowed my imagination to take me back more than three millennia, to the time when the Jewish people, according to Moses’ instructions in this week’s Torah portion, gathered atop these mountains shortly after their entry into the Land in order to rededicate themselves to the ethical values of Torah.

Moses’ Directive

These were Moses’ instructions to the people in the book of Deuteronomy:

“When Your G-d brings you to the land, to possess it, you shall deliver the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal.”

Later in the Bible, Moses is more specific. Six tribes were to ascend Mt. Gerizim, while another six tribes were to ascend Mt. Ebal. The elders of the Levites were to stand in the valley between the two mountains. They would loudly pronounce 12 basic moral commandments of the Torah.

As the Talmud explains, turning their faces to Mt. Gerizim, the Levites declared that fulfilling these commandments would bring blessings, to which all of Israel responded Amen. Then, turning their faces to Mt. Ebal, they declared that violating these commandments would cause detriment, to which all of the tribes again responded with an Amen.

In Moses’ words:

“The Levites shall speak up and say to every man of Israel in a loud voice… ‘Accursed is the man who will make a graven or molten image, an abomination of G-d… and the entire people shall speak up and say ‘Amen’… Accursed is the man who degrades his father or mother… Accursed is the one who steals the property of his fellow… Accursed is one who causes a blind person to go astray on the road… Accursed is the one who perverts a judgment of a proselyte, orphan or widow… Accursed is the one who has intimate relations with the wife of his father… Accursed is the one who has intimate relations with any animal… Accursed is the one who has intimate relations with his sister… Accursed is the one who has intimate relations with his mother-in-law… Accursed is the one who strikes his fellow stealthily… Accursed is the one who takes a bribe to kill a person of innocent blood…'”

The Implementation

Indeed, Moses’ instructions to the people of Israel were fulfilled meticulously. Here is the report in the book of Joshua:

“Then Joshua built an altar to G-d, G-d of Israel, on Mount Ebal, as Moses, the servant of G-d, has commanded the children of Israel… All of Israel and its elders and officers and its judges stood… half of them on the slope of Mt. Gerizim and half of them on the slope of Mt. Ebal, to first bless the people of Israel.”

This was a profoundly dramatic moment in our early history. Entering for the first time into their homeland, the Jewish people, atop these two mountains, defined their mission statement as a people, rededicating themselves to the novel and revolutionary system of biblical ethics still unheard of in that milieu of cannibalism and pagan feasts of child slaughtering. According to the Talmud, it was at that moment that the Jewish people accepted shared duty for each other as a single organism.

Incidentally, it is worth noting that at the northern corner of Mt. Ebal a great archeological find was excavated a number of years ago. After searching the entire area for signs of an early Israelite settlement, a solid stone structure was uncovered on the northern summit of Ebal surrounded by large amounts of animal bones. After the bones were submitted for testing the results showed that 93 percent to 97 percent of the bones came from kosher animals, and specifically animals that were permitted for use on a Jewish altar. The nonreligious archeologist who discovered the sight concluded that he had excavated the altar described above in Joshua 8:30. (Because of safety concerns, the sight today is mostly off limits.)

Another fascinating fact I observed is that although the two mountains are closely situated to each other, and subject to the same rains and climates, Mt. Gerizim is green and fertile, while its neighboring Mt. Ebal is tark white rock and barren. This is easily observable, perhaps a result of Ebal being designated as the mountain of curse.

Why Two Mountains?

Yet the obvious question is, why the need for two distinct mountains in order to proclaim the benefits of loyalty to the Torah ethic and the detriments resulting from abandoning the Torah? Why couldn’t the entire ceremony be performed on one mountain?

Even if all of the Jews could not fit on a single mountain, why were blessings directed toward one mountain, while curses directed to another?

The answer seems to be uniquely relevant to our age.

With the vivid visualization of two distinct mountains, separated by a valley, one of blessing, the other of curse, the Torah is attempting to convey the message that life can and should be divided into two distinct pathways: one path as a source of blessing and growth; the other as a source of curse and devastation. A very real gulf separates the moral life from the immoral life and it ought never be obfuscated.

With this clear designation of a mountain of blessing vs. a mountain of curse, the Bible is rejecting the now popular notion that the true progressive personality is open to all kinds of people, all kinds of lifestyles, all ideologies, all choices. According to this modern-day ethos, the primary enemy is the person who cannot be tolerant to all forms of behavior, the individual who believes that some deeds are absolutely blessed, while others are absolutely cursed.

The University Crisis

In the introduction to his book “The Closing of the American Mind,” the late Chicago University professor Allan Bloom argued that higher education in the U.S. has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students. The great virtue of the day, he wrote, became the unshakable belief that all truth is relative, and that no one idea or moral value is truer than any other. Openness to every culture and tolerance of every idea has become the greatest insight of our time. The notion of absoluteness, naturally, became the great foe of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and culture taught the youth of today that the greatest evils of the past came from people who thought they were absolutely right. Our mission today was not to correct the mistakes and learn what is really right, but rather to abolish the very concept of right and wrong. Everything became right. What right, students continue to ask, do I or anyone else have to say that one way is better than the other?

In Bloom’s own words:

“If I pose the routine questions designed to confuse them and make them think, such as ‘If you had been a British administrator in India, would you have let the natives under your governance burn the widow at the funeral of a man who had died?’ they either remain silent or reply that the British should never have been there in the first place.”

In the Dec. 17, 2001 issue of Newsweek, Yale University student Alison Hornstein wisely observed:

“On the morning of Sept. 11, my entire college campus huddled around television sets, our eyes riveted in horror to the images of the burning, then falling, Twin Towers… But by Sept. 12, as our shock began to fade, so did our sense of being wronged. Students’ reactions expressed in the daily newspaper and in class pointed to the differences between our life circumstances and those of the perpetrators, suggesting that these differences had caused the previous day’s events.

“Noticeably absent,” she wrote, “was a general outcry of indignation. These reactions, and similar ones on other campuses, have made it apparent that my generation is uncomfortable assessing, or even asking, whether a moral wrong has taken place. My generation may be culturally sensitive, but we hesitate to make moral judgments.”

This, I believe, is one of the greatest tragedies raging in American campuses across the country. The fact that so many university students cannot recognize some actions as objectively evil, despite differences in cultural standards and values, is not only philosophically problematic, it is practically suicidal. If we cannot define anything as evil, we cannot stand up to it. We then ensure its victory.

If hijacking planes and killing thousands of civilians is not objectively bad, I do not know what can be deemed evil. If blowing up two buses filled with civilian men, women and children, blowing to pieces 16 innocent human beings — as Hamas did this Tuesday in Israel — is not absolutely evil, what is?

Three thousand and two hundred years ago, the Torah taught us that some acts constitute blessings; others constitute curses. They ought never to be equated. They ought to be distinguished not only conceptually, but also physically. They could never be associated together in one domain. An absolute, though narrow, gulf separates the two.

Distinguishing good from bad is not an act of arrogance, peasantry or a display of closed-mindedness. It is the only way to purge our beautiful world from militants who slaughter people who do not adhere to their beliefs.

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