This week’s Torah portion contains instructions for a fascinating ceremony that is to be performed when the Israelites enter the land of Israel. The people are instructed to inscribe the words of the Torah onto stones, coat them with plaster and set them up on a mountain. Half of the tribes are to stand on Mount Ebal, while the other half stand on Mount Gerizim. The Levites will then shout out a series of potential curses with the whole people answering “Amen!” to each one. The remainder of the parshah promises blessings and threatens curses in accordance with Israel’s obedience or disobedience to God’s commandments.
This section of the Torah is known as the tochecha, or “warning,” and contains quite frightening threats of the horrors that will befall us if we forget our covenant with God: We’ll face illnesses, madness, hunger, drought, plagues, captivity and destruction at the hands of our enemies. This part of the Torah is so terrifying that when it’s read aloud in synagogue services, it’s customary to read it as quickly and quietly as possible. It’s as if we don’t want to say it too loud for fear that saying it aloud will make it real.
This series of curses and blessings is always read in the month of Elul, in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days, in which we prepare ourselves for the New Year through reflection and introspection. We sound the shofar each day to awaken our souls. What might this parshah add to our preparation for the High Holy Days?
As we enter the land of Israel, the blessings are spoken from Mount Gerizim, and the curses are spoken from Mount Ebal. Similarly, the New Year stands in front of us, offering us a choice. Just like our ancestors looked out and saw two mountains rising in front of them, we, at this time of year, look ahead at the landscape of our lives. We know that the Book of Life soon will be open and that we’ll have 10 days to consider what we want to have written in it.
The message of the High Holy Days, like the message of our Torah portion, is that we are given the opportunity to choose our lives.
One of the central prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is U’netaneh Tokef: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water, who will have ease and who will be afflicted.” This dramatic part of the liturgy reminds us of the two mountains that stand in front of us: blessing or curse, life or death.
The prayer concludes: “Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedekah avert the severity of the decree.” Our actions — teshuvah, repentance or returning; tefillah, prayer; and tzedekah, righteousness or charity — allow us to choose what kind of life we will have, whether we will be blessed or cursed.
Note that the prayer does not say that our choices can change the decree; we cannot always control whether illness, accident or misfortune will befall us. But our spiritual work averts the severity of the decree, the prayer says. This means that while we might not be able to choose what happens to us, we can choose how we experience our lives. We can choose whether we feel blessed or cursed.
Perhaps the bleakest of the curses listed in our Torah portion is the one found in Deuteronomy 28:66: “Your life will hang in front of you, you’ll be afraid night and day, and you’ll not believe in your life.” The worst curse possible is to see your life in front of you and to feel afraid and powerless — and not to believe in your own life, in its meaning and its possibilities.
But despite the many harsh threats of this parshah, the Torah affirms that we have the power to choose whether we’ll stand at the mountain of curse or of blessing. And each year, the High Holy Day season gives us the awesome opportunity to look at our lives and to choose blessing. Amen!
Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.