2014-08-20 / Religion Column

Are they not on the other side of the Jordan?

Community Chaplain

Parashat Re’eh
Deut. 11:26-16:17

Shortly after the fall of Jericho and the destruction of Ai, Joshua summoned the tribes of Israel together to reaffirm the Covenant of Sinai. Following the instructions given to him by Moses (Deuteronomy 27:3-8), Joshua built a sacrificial altar, erected stones on which he inscribed the sacred teachings, and positioned the tribes on two mountains—six tribes on Mount Gerizim and six on Mount Ebal. He, then, read the teachings and proclaimed the blessings and the curses, “just as is written in the Book of the Teaching.” (Joshua 8:30-35) This recreation of the Sinai experience with the dramatic flip in staging—the tribes on the mountains and the prophet in the valley—signified our ancestors’ acceptance of the value system and pattern of life, which Moses reviewed just prior to his death.

While the detailed instructions concerning this assembly appear near the end of Deuteronomy in Parashat Ki Tavo (Chap. 27), the directive first occurs in the opening verses of Parashat Re’eh (Deut. 11:26-31). It underscores a basic theme of Deuteronomy—the injunction to adhere to God’s covenant and to choose wisely between good and evil, blessing and curse, life and death. Drawing from the wisdom tradition (see the Book of Proverbs) in which the individual is responsible for choosing wisely, Deuteronomy expands on this concept and envisions the Israelites as a corporate person. We, as a people, need to choose wisely.

Our ancestors’ willingness to accept this challenge marked their coming of age as an independent people in their own land. Moses stressed that the mount of benediction, Gerizim, and the mount of malediction, Ebal, are both situated across the Jordan in the land of Canaan. (Deut. 11:30) He understood that when we entered into Canaan and made it the Land of Israel, we, as a people, would take responsibility for our choices as an organized community.

At Sinai, shortly after the Exodus, God spoke from the top of a mountain to the Israelites encamped in the valley below. Some 40 years later, Moses envisioned the Israelites standing on the top of mountains in the Land of Israel, declaring their loyalty to God and the Covenant of Sinai.

At that moment, Israel’s Covenant would no longer be a private matter between our people and our God. When our ancestors proclaimed their acceptance of that Covenant, it becomes a public document holding forth before all our values, our mission—our purpose as a people bound together by common memories and shared hopes. Torah ceased to be the interior set of goals and expectations by which we measure ourselves and became the standard by which all people will judge us.

This obligation, referred to in our tradition as the yoke of the Dominion of Heaven (ol Malchut Shamayim), was freely accepted by our ancestors, and still binds us, as the Jewish people, and our organized communal institutions, which represent us as a people, to a higher standard. In war and in peace, in business and leisure, and in all aspects of life, the policies, procedures, programs and projects we follow cannot be judged merely by what people and nations commonly do. They need to reflect the presence of the Divine Dominion in this very human world.

Our ancestors did not choose to be ordinary. They picked a different path that they knew could lead to incredible rewards if followed carefully. They also knew it was the harder path with severe consequences if they wandered off.

Our Bible preserves for us as a sacred text the struggles of our ancestors to live out this fateful choice. They did not always succeed. Yet, as we celebrate their achievements, we learn from their failures. Jewish communities today, in our country, in Israel, and throughout the world, face the same challenge—a people called to choose wisely, as we strive to fulfill our commitment to be a community covenanted with each other and with God. .

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