Finding a Place to Stand

For the week of September 8th, 2012

Parashat Ki Tavo
(Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)

Among the most striking features of Ki Tavo is the dramatic ritual (see Deut. 27) that the Israelites are commanded to enact once they cross the Jordan River.  While the exact details are subject to interpretation (and debate),* Moses explains that the Israelites are to set up two, great stones on Mount Ebal upon which are written the words of the covenant God is making with them (Deut. 27:4).  Then, after making offerings to God on an altar they will build (Deut. 27:5-7), half the tribes (or perhaps, just their tribal representatives) are to stand on top of Mount Ebal while the other half stand on Mount Gezirim.  Meanwhile, some of the Levites and priests stand (perhaps, in the valley between the two mountains) and proclaim the blessings and curses that are the rewards and punishments for obedience or  disobedience to God’s laws.  And all the people are required to answer “Amen,” thereby accepting the terms of the covenant anew.

The message inherent in this ritual is clear, absolute and fairly graphic–obedience to God’s teaching will be rewarded with wonderful blessings and disobedience will be punished with terrible curses.  Yet, as Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli K’nesset, notes in his new Torah commentary, “…life is an every-growing series of compromises between desires and abilities, between the dream and the possible.  Few things in life are perfect.  Even the Torah, the teaching that God gave through Moses, is a teaching of life and not theory.  Its laws are directed at a life that contains a measure of imperfection.”**  We note, for example, that the Torah includes rituals of purification and atonement.  In those passages, the tradition seems to presume that we’ll sometimes go astray and make mistakes and it offers us a mechanism for reconciliation and renewal.

In contrast, Burg points out that Ki Tavo represents a moment in which Moses “…loses hold of the moderating reins of real life and hurls binary thinking at the people: either life or death, either blessing or curse, either my way or the highway to destruction. …. On the surface, there is no apparent middle ground between the two opposing absolutes.”***

This absolute, binary stance should feel both familiar and disturbing to us.  The rhetoric of the culture wars (especially during a Presidential election year), is frequently couched in such  absolutes.  In this framework, you’re either “Pro-Life” or “Pro-Choice.”  You are either in favor of murdering innocent babies or you are a terrible misogynist, who cares nothing for the right of women to exercise agency over their own bodies.  When it comes to climate change, you are either a deluded, liberal alarmist who has been duped by so-called “scientific” evidence or you are a science-denying, small-minded conservative who stubbornly refuses to accept the consensus of most of the world’s scientific community.  In such a worldview, there’s no middle ground.  You either stand on Mount Ebal or Mount Gerizim.  You (and your perspectives and actions) are either blessed or cursed.

We should acknowledge that there is some comfort in this kind of absolute dichotomy.  We can congratulate ourselves on being people of character who have strong principles.  We can take positions that are both clear and relatively easy to articulate.  Best of all, we can distinguish ourselves from (and feel superior to) those people on the “other” mountain.  We are good.  They are bad.  Of course, paradoxically, both sides tend to believe (and insist) that they are the ones standing on top of Mount Gerizim–the place of blessing–so, it must be pretty crowded up there!

For my part, I prefer the interpretation that imagines only the leaders of the 12 tribes are actually standing on the two mountains.****  I prefer to imagine that the bulk of the people are standing in the valley between the two hills.  At certain points in the ritual, they turn towards Gerizim and, at other times, towards Ebal.  Standing in that valley, we possess less clarity and certainty and will be less able to bask in self-righteousness.  But we also may be better able to recognize (or be more open to recognizing) the possibility that some measure of significant Truth can be heard from both hills.

Standing there, in the messy, uncertain, complicated middle, we may find ourselves in the most hopeful and authentically human place.   The valley “in-between” would seem to be the place that offers the most possibility for compromise and for moving forward together in a positive way.  But it definitely is not a place conducive to “gotcha” soundbites or simple, binary distinctions between “us” (the good guys) and “them” (the bad guys).  All the same, I believe that, in most cases, this “in-between” place is actually the most holy spot and the one where God “wants” us to stand.  It’s the place in which we realize that life (whether potential or fully realized) is not something to be ended lightly and women should not be denied their right to decide what happens to their bodies.  It’s where we recognize that the mounting evidence for climate change deserves our serious attention and action but should not be allowed to create hysteria or remove the ongoing obligation for a critical review of that evidence.

And there’s one, other observation, closely aligned, I think, to Avraham Burg’s central point.  What seems to be missing from this ritual between the two mountains is any symbol of teshuvah (repentance).  After all, our rabbis teach that the gates of repentance are always open.******  So where, in this entire ritual, do we find a symbol of how we might experience remorse, learn from our mistakes, reconcile with those we’ve harmed and God and make amends in order to become better, truer human beings?  In what way could this ritual take account both of the inevitability of our failures and the ongoing possibility of return and redemption?  Perhaps, only if we place ourselves in the valley “in-between”–the place from which both success and failure are still possible, the place from which we may choose blessing or curse.  If we are honest, that uncertain, imperfect valley between the two hills is the place in which most of us live our lives and determine the shape of our character.  May we stand strong there and may we choose well.

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*See, for example, the note to Deut. 27:12 in The Torah:  A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition), ed., W. Gunther Plaut (New York:  Union for Reform Judaism, 2005), pg. 1353, which points out that the construction of these verses and the precise roles of the participants are unclear.

**Very Near to You:  Human Readings of the Torah, Avraham Burg, trans., J.J. Goldberg (Jerusalem/New York:  Gefen Publishing House, 2012) pg. 413 [I’m indebted to my friend, Rabbi Michael White, for recommending this wonderful book to me!].

***Burg, ibid.

****See the note to Deut. 27:12 (in The Torah) referenced above.

*****Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 2,12 in a comment on Deut. 4:7 and Psalms 69:14 that teaches, in the name of Rabbi Samuel ben Nachman, “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance always remain open.”