Re’eh: Plain Choices

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

D’varim is a series of speeches which Moshe
gives in the mountains across the Jordan river, right before the
Israelites cross over and begin to settle the land. In fact, this
week’s portion,Re’eh , begins with Moshe telling the people that they
have the choice between blessing and curse, a choice symbolized by two
mountains they will see when they soon enter the Land:

“And it will be, when the Lord, your God, will bring you to the land
to which you come, to possess it, that you shall place those blessing
upon MountGerizim, and those cursing upon Mount Ebal . Are they not on
the other side of the Jordan, way beyond, in the direction of the
sunset, in the land of the Canaanites, who dwell in the plain,
oppositeGilgal, near the plains of Moreh ? For you are crossing the
Jordan, to come to possess the land which the Lord, your God, is
giving you, and you shall possess it and dwell in it.”
(D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:29-31)

These verses are rather typical of themes in D’varim; Moshe is telling
the people that they have choice: to follow the covenant and receive
blessing, or spurn the Torah and be cursed. This choice will present
itself as starkly as two mountains which face each other, which the
people will see clearly once they enter the land- the mountains
themselves are symbolic of the unavoidable choices the people will
have once they begin to govern themselves as a nation in its homeland.

Our friend Rashi notices that the geographical description of the two
mountains is “near the plains of Moreh,” and connects this to the
description of how Avraham [then called Avram]- way back in the
beginning of Bereshit/Genesis- first entered the Land:

“Avram traveled through the land as far as the area of Shechem, coming
to the plains of Moreh. The Canaanites were then in the land.”
(Bereshit/Genesis 12:6)

OK, says Rashi, the plains of Moreh are the same as Shechem- the verse
from Genesis proves it.

Uh . . . (I can hear you asking). . . that’s a nice little geography
lesson, but so what?

As I read it, Rashi is doing more than showing us what towns are near
which fields – I think he’s making a subtle historical point about the
choices which will face the Israelites in the future. If Shechem was
only significant as a place where Avraham travelled, Rashi would be
making an interesting connection between Avraham’s journey and that of
his descendants, perhaps implying that their entry into the Land is a
kind of re-enactment of his, rooted in the covenant which began with
Avraham and which his descendants are now realizing.

However, Shechem is mentioned in several other Torah narratives, two
of which are a bit more sobering than a mention of Avraham’s campsite.
In Bereshit 34, Shechem is the name of the prince who raped Yaakov’s
daughter Dinah [it seems that the town bears the same name], which
leads Shimon and Levi, two of Yaakov’s sons, to deceive the
townspeople in order to take a terrible vengeance on them. Yaakov
rebukes his sons, and worries that their actions will bring trouble
from the other peoples in the Land.

A few chapters later, Shechem is mentioned as the place where Yosef’s
brothers would pasture their flocks- it is where Yosef looked for them
when his father sent him to his brothers after he offended them with
his dreams. (Cf. Bereshit/Genesis 37)

So what does all this have to do with the two symbolic mountains? As I
read it, by connecting “blessing” and “curse” with the area near
Shechem, Moshe may be reminding the people of what can go right, and
what can go wrong, once they enter the land. The Israelites are
blessed by the example of Avraham, who left his home in the East and
traveled on faith to the Land of Israel- remembering his journey as
far as Shechem might inspire them and give them hope, faith, and
confidence in the future. On the other hand, Shechem is also where
Shimon and Levi used violence far disproportionate to their conflict,
and where Yosef’s brothers nursed their grudge against him. These
stories remind the people to guard themselves against anger, hatred,
and the desire for revenge- all of which can only bring curse, not
blessing.

Seen this way, the plains of Moreh- near Shechem- offer a historical
example of the choice between blessing and curse which Moshe lays out
for the people. Be as courageous and faithful asAvraham, or choose
resentment and vengeance as Yaakov’s sons did with their neighbors and
even with their brother.

It’s nice to live in a place like Poughkeepsie, in a beautiful valley
with mountains on one side and the other, but the two mountains from
our Torah portion represent a more universal truth: that every day and
in every place we have the choice to make the journey one of curse or
blessing.

With warm wishes for a thoughtful Elul,

RNJL

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