THE VALLEY OF GOOD & EVIL
Like many other portions in the Torah, Parshat Ki Tavo lists the blessings and curses of the Jewish nation as we struggle with ol malchut shamayim, subservience to Hashem and His mitzvot.
Like many other portions in the Torah, Parshat Ki Tavo lists the blessings and curses of the Jewish nation as we struggle with ol malchut shamayim, subservience to Hashem and His mitzvot. But unlike other portions, Parshat Ki Tavo mirrors each curse with an equal and opposite blessing: A devout and pious Jew is "blessed in the city and blessed in the field. . .blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out" (Deuteronomy 28:3-6), whereas a negligent, belligerent sinner is "cursed in the city and cursed in the field. . .cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out" (ibid. 28:16-19). What does this relationship between reward and punishment symbolize?
Furthermore, the assembly described at the beginning of the portion for another series of blessings and curses is also unique to Parshat Ki Tavo. Soon after their entrance into the land of Israel, the Jewish people are told to travel to Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival, where half of the tribes are to stand on one mountain while the other half will stand opposite them on the other mountain. Standing in the valley between these two mountains, the Levites are to direct a series of twelve blessings towards Mt. Gerizim, and a perfectly opposite series of curses towards Mt. Eival. This strange orchestration, this fascinating symmetry, affects even the physical arrangement of the Children of Israel. How is this significant to the Jewish people of today?
Our health, our wealth, and our wisdom are all preordained while we are still in the womb. In fact, "Hakol beidey shamayim chootz m'yirat shamayim - everything is in the hands of G-d except for the fear of G-d." Every aspect of our life is preplanned, with the only exception being yirat shamayim, the awe of G-d which influences our choices and direction in this world. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, one of the outstanding figures in Jewish philosophy of the 20th century, clarifies this point when he states: "A wicked person receives his talents for this world just as a righteous person does. Each individual uses his talents according to his wisdom, except the righteous person uses them to elevate himself, whereas the wicked person uses them to lower himself."
This principle is essential in understanding why the blessings and curses appear measure for measure, equal and opposite in their effect. Although G-d addresses the nation as a whole at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival, the language of these curses and blessings are in the singular: G-d is speaking to each and every Jew. To the same degree that the individual follows the Torah, he shall be rewarded. If the individual rejects his responsibility, he will receive an equal and opposite punishment.
This individual responsibility of yirat shamayim is critical for spiritual growth. And yet the Ramban, a classic commentator on the Torah, warns us that this should not lead to the neglecting of communal responsibility. He remarks that "even if [a king] is completely righteous in his actions, but he fails to strengthen his wicked subjects in Torah, behold he is a cursed man." To counterbalance this selfishness, we must glean from the formation of the Jewish people at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival. No matter how great or small the individual is, both the blessings and curses will effect the entire nation. When the nation responds "Amen" to these words, they affirm the concept of "kol Yisrael areivim zeh la'zeh," that in spite of individuality every Jew is responsible for his brother. We are not merely a conglomerate of individuals. We are individual units of a whole, just as every limb is critical to the body. Thus the entire nation is somehow a recipient of G-d's blessings and curses.
So where do we focus? If we perfect our individual flaws, like the negligent king, we may overlook our community roles. And if we focus on the nation at large, when will we find time for self-introspection? We must look to the Levites, who in this week's Torah portion exemplify the balance between the individual and the nation. The Levites relayed the blessings and curses from Hashem to Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival. It is their individual task to serve as intermediaries between the Jewish people and Hashem in spiritual service. And yet they too stood at Mt. Gerizim, they too responded to the blessings and curses which will befall us as a nation. This delicate balance which the Levites maintained is an ultimate goal for all of us.
The destruction of European Jewry and the rebuilding of Israel are two examples of the curses and blessings of Parshat Ki Tavo. Its unfolding is as real in this generation as it was millennia ago. And therefore, as the Days of Awe approach, we will be called to task for our successes and failures of the year just as our ancestors were. These last few days must be filled with introspection and concern. Before we reach the gateways of Rosh Hashanah, we must ask ourselves this urgent question: Will we be standing on Mt. Gerizim as recipients of the blessings, or on Mt. Eival as the subjects of curses, at the shofar's final blast?
David Appelrouth, who hails from Atlanta, is studying at the Yeshiva Bais Yisroel in Jerusalem.
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