As we reach the end of our journey through the wilderness and near the Promised Land, God sets two paths before us: blessing and curse. If we heed God’s word, we will be blessed in every way possible and will be established as am kadosh, a holy people. If, however, we do not heed God, we will suffer every curse imaginable.
Introducing these two paths to the Israelites, Moses says, “If you listen, listen to the voice of Adonai your God” all blessings will follow. However, “if you do not listen to God’s voice,” then curse will be upon you.
These instructions emphasize the phrase im shamoa — “if you listen” — from the word shema (listen), the Shema being the central prayer of our liturgy.
If you listen, deeply listen, to the voice of God: blessing. And if not: curse. Here the act of listening, more than any other, is emphasized as the key factor in determining our fate. As the text seems to offer, listening is the essential practice for living a life in service to God and is at the heart of what it means to choose the path of blessing.
Given the importance of this task, we must ask: What does it mean to listen to the voice of God?
In these verses, the Torah portrays God as a dictator, the powerful one in charge who will punish us if we don’t obey. In this read, to listen to God is to heed an abuser who lords his power over us in order to force us to follow his will.
A famous midrash brings this version of God to life in its retelling of the revelation at Mount Sinai. This midrash imagines God holding the mountain menacingly over our heads saying, “If you accept the Torah, fine; but if not [I will drop this mountain on top of you and] there will be your grave.”
In this midrash we do not enter willingly into relationship with God or Torah, but rather capitulate under threat to our life.
Through this lens, the path we are meant to take is clear and is given to us by an authority on high. We have no choice and no freedom. This both limits us and relieves us of the responsibility for our actions.
According to this read, there is a clear binary between right and wrong: We either follow the good path and are rewarded, or we disobey and are punished mightily. There is no room for ambiguity, confusion or complexity.
Our parashah and this midrash convey a narrative in which a single voice of authority defines reality.
In this time in our world, we are seeing how much this approach has shaped our social and political institutions. The fragility and insufficiency of these systems and institutions are being revealed — from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo to our political discourse with both our allies and our adversaries around the globe.
This weekend, we celebrate the new moon of Elul, the Hebrew month in which we begin preparation for the High Holidays. This season in our calendar and this moment in our world call upon us to renew our relationship to God.
May we listen to the multiplicity of God’s infinite voices — for the ones we most need now. Curse and blessing hang in the balance.