This week, our Torah portion finds the Israelites poised to cross into the Promised Land, respectfully listening to Moses’ swan song. They are on the plains of Moav, on the eastern side of the Jordan River, positioned between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim. These mountains may be part of the same mountain range, but they are very different in appearance. Mt. Gerizim rises as a green slope above the Valley of Shephem, and is lush with abundant growth. Next to it is Ebal, a barren, steep and bleak mountain. When I imagine Mt. Ebal, Disney’s depiction of Bald Mountain in the movie “Fantasia” comes to mind.
The Israelites have been commanded by God to enter the land between the two mountains. On fertile Mt. Gerizim, six tribal elders will shout the blessings that God will bestow on the Israelites if they faithfully follow God’s commandments. The tribal elders on bleak Mt. Ebal — no surprise here — will shout out the curses that will befall the Israelites if they break God’s commandments.
The physical appearance of the two mountains is a very apt metaphor for the Israelites’ future choices and the consequences of those choices. It also aligns with the name of the parsha, Re’eh, which means “see.” The parsha text begins: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I enjoin upon you this day: and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path which I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.”
For an unsophisticated people who have just endured 400 years of slavery, the instruction is made more real to them as they see the desolate Mt. Ebal and the lush Mt. Gerizim.
The “other gods you have not experienced” refers to Canaanite gods like Baal and Ashtarte, as well as those worshipped by other peoples in the land. God gives the people very detailed and clear instructions of where to look for idols representing these gods and how to destroy them. This commandment, to destroy the idols and to worship only the Holy One, appears again and again in the Torah and Hebrew Bible. Obviously, we do not worship idols today, but do contemporary Jews still have idols?
If we define idolatry as anything that keeps us from worshipping God, the answer unequivocally is yes. Consider the idols that keep us from coming to the synagogue and worshipping together as a unified community. The list of excuses is long: It’s been a hard work week and we just want to relax; there’s a television program on that we don’t want to miss; we are participating in a secular event, and so many others. If we’ve missed Shabbat for these reasons, and who among us hasn’t done this at some point, is there really a curse that will befall us, like Egyptian boils or severe drought?
I understand the curses as warnings given a simple people, a newly-born nation. Moses, through God, offered the fledging Israelites metaphors they easily could understand, to serve as a strong deterrent from following other gods. After all, Egyptian boils sounds painful, and leaden skies with no rain would lead to failed crops and starvation.
Personally, I know of no one who has gotten boils from failing to observe Shabbat. So what is our modern punishment for skipping services one week, or every week? The loss of companionship comes to mind. It’s no news to anyone that we live in a society where human interaction has decreased significantly. We read and hear how computers and video games have greatly reduced the time that kids spend outside or playing with one another. We adults don’t even have to go outside to get groceries anymore; one can order food that is delivered to one’s doorstep. We don’t really need to go to the library; we can use our smart phones or computers for research. Want to read a book or newspaper? Download it online. We can even experience a Jewish service from the comfort of our homes, as so many congregations now livestream their services.
You might ask, “So what? What is lost when we use modern technology to ‘simplify’ our lives?” Camaraderie with others, of course, is lost. Judaism never has been a solitary contemplative religion. We don’t go off by ourselves to meditate or to live in isolated communities. In our worship, we are meant to be with others; that is why we require a minyan — 10 people — before we can say the kaddish and other prayers. There is a magical synergy that happens when many voices are raised together in song or prayer. I always experience it when the turnout is good for a service.
The importance of community is acknowledged in the first few verses of our Torah by the God who created and knows us. In Gen.2:18 we are told, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Choosing not to engage with others on a regular basis can lead to depression and other health problems. Half of all Americans report increased feelings of isolation and loneliness. The numbers are alarming because of the health and mental health risks associated with loneliness. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, reports that lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder.
Where does that leave us? Clearly, engaging in communal worship not only fulfills a commandment, but is good for us as well. The benefits are both spiritual and physical. In these ways, the choices given the Israelites on the plains of Moav are no less relevant to us today. We still can find wisdom, meaning and a blueprint for our lives passed down to us by our singular and esteemed prophet, Moses Rabeinu. PJC
Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.