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Parshat Re’eh: The Two Mountains

וְהָיָה, כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ ה אֱלֹקיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ--וְנָתַתָּה אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה עַל-הַר גְּרִזִים, וְאֶת-הַקְּלָלָה עַל-הַר עֵיבָל.

When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that you are entering to possess, you shall proclaim the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Eival. (Devarim 11:29)

Why a mountain? It always did fascinate me why God chose two mountains for the blessings and the curses? Why a mountain to give us the Torah? From a purely anthropological perspective a mountain makes sense. It is a high place; Moshe can be seen from below by all the people. Everyone can ‘gather around it‘ and it provides the perfect image in which God speaks from above, or Moshe the leader speaks to the people down below. But I suspect there is something more.

A few years ago, I read a book by the American journalist and public intellectual David Brooks called The Second Mountain. He writes about how we bounce back from adversity and build resilience;, about life’s journey and the way we find meaning in our lives. Brooks uses the image of a mountain to describe a certain life trajectory. He suggests that, in general, many people begin by climbing what he terms the ‘first mountain’ of their life trajectory in which the goals are the pursuit of personal happiness, career success, formation of social circles and superficial images. At times, once one has reached the mountain summit, the happiness and success that seemed so alluring eludes them and they start searching for something deeper. At other times, people can get knocked off the mountain either through failure or some kind of sudden adversarial life event. Brooks calls this the valley. In the valley we will often encounter a season of suffering and at that point we will need to ask some hard questions. Do we want to climb the first mountain once again, or has our season of suffering broken us, revealing to us that what we imagined to be the zenith of our happiness was in fact an illusion? It is at this point we choose to look at our lives through a different lens. In the valley, even if it is our own undoing, it becomes very hard to choose life. How can we choose life in the midst of despair and suffering?

The answer rests in the difference between victimisation and victimhood. Suffering is universal - we all experience it at some point, but victimhood is optional. Healing comes when we reject the self-definition of victim. When we realise the full implication of Moshe’s command - to choose life rather than death, blessings rather than curses – we realise he is calling us to rise above our victimhood and climb the second mountain. But the climb is different. You conquer your first mountain, but you are conquered by your second mountain. You surrender, you are humbled, you recognise the limit and the greatness of your capacities and you use them to create meaning, to choose life and blessing. In being deeply and profoundly cognisant of your smallness you are made bigger. So why a mountain?

It’s all about the climb. It’s all about the journey, it’s all about the view, and it’s all about the awe. It’s about what you see from the valley and what you see from the peak. It’s about your perspective and the attitude with which you climb. On the first mountain we only focus on the summit. We are apathetic towards those we pass along the way or indifferent to the beauty that surrounds us inviting us to be awed. Our eyes are fixed on the goal but not the stops along the way. On the second mountain we are looking at the path. We are curious about what surrounds us and we seek to aid those who need our help . It’s all about what we see and what we choose to see.

After reading Brooks, the imagery of the mountain in this weeks Parsha took on a new meaning. The journey to the land is over. Now the people are on a new journey – the journey to nationhood, to society, to national destiny. Entering the land of Israel requires both mountains. We need to keep our eye on the summit – to build, conquer, and succeed. But that success must simultaneously be matched by our second mountain climb. It needs to be infused with meaning, awe, humility, transcendence, and a call to the other that extends beyond the immediate needs of the self. How can this be achieved? The Torah’s answer is as simple as it is profound; through adherence to Torah, mitzvot, sanctity of the land (awareness of a realm beyond immediate material success), ma’aser –tithing, (awareness that your goals and interests are not the entirety of being), looking after the poor and destitute (being a blessing to others). The mountain is the place from which we can look up (to God, transcendence, something beyond ourselves) and look down (to those that need us to help them). It is the place that engenders a deep sense of awe, awakening and humility. Above all else it is the point from which we gain a profound sense of perspective.

No wonder the parsha begins with the word ‘reeh’.

רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם--הַיּוֹם: בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה. אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה--אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מִצְוֺת ה אֱלֹקיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם.

See this: I am setting before you on this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, that I am commanding you today; (Devarim 11:26,27

The verse did not need the word ‘re’eh’ – it is superfluous other than the fact that it is indeed the very essence of Moshe’s entire swansong. As we enter the land and we become an independent people we will face some difficult and challenging situations both individually and nationally. Much of how we deal with these situations will depend on what we choose to ‘see’. Curses and blessings, good and bad, life and death are all a matter of what we choose to ‘see’ and how we ‘see’ it. One can look at any given reality and choose to see death or life, good or bad, a curse or a blessing. Nothing has changed.

Today in Israel, once again Moshe’s voice echoes through the centuries. We are being called upon to choose to see good. This time it’s not about ‘seeing’ God in the face of rampant idol worship, nor is it about draining the swamps and seeing the vision of a flourishing land in a desert wasteland and nor is it about seeing ‘life’ after the death of 6 million and choosing to defy our victimhood. Today it is far simpler and yet evidently far harder. Today we are being called upon to see the ‘good’ in the face of our fellow brethren. To recognise that even the person who does not ‘look’ like me or think like me is still a human being, still has the spark of the Divine within them. Today, once again, we are being asked to ‘re’eh’ - to see the two mountains of curses and blessings and to choose carefully which mountain we want to climb. May Hashem give us the wisdom, intuition and strength to make the right choice.

Shabbat Shalom

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