Parshat Re’eh introduces a dramatic ceremony that our ancestors were tasked with performing upon their triumphant entry into the Land of Israel:
“Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse … 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 Mount Gerizim, and those cursing upon Mount Eival. 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, opposite Gilgal, near the plains of Moreh?”
As fleshed out in greater detail in Devarim 27, the Kohanim and Levites were to lead the people in a public affirmation of the values of the Torah, blessing and maledicting respectively those who upheld or violated those values. This was to take place on the two mountains mentioned above, Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, which are located on the hilltop range in the heartland of the Land of Israel. (In one of the most amazing Israeli archaeological discoveries of the last half century, Dr Adam Zertal of University of Haifa has made a very convincing argument identifying the altar commanded by the Torah to be built as part of the ceremony on Mount Eival.)
However, there is an issue hotly debated in rabbinic literature about this ceremony. On the one hand, the Torah is clear about the location. At the same time, Devarim 27:2 implies that this covenantal ceremony is to take place immediately on entry into the Land, “on the day you cross the Jordan.” These are seemingly irreconcilable: Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival lay miles and miles from the Jordan, across enemy territory that would require weeks and weeks of intense warfare to fall under Jewish control.
There are a number of different approaches to solve this dilemma, but the most fascinating is that of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Elazar:
“They formed two mounds of earth and named one Mount Gerizim and one Mount Eival” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 7:2).
Rabbi Elazar believed that at that point, indeed, Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival proper were not accessible to the Jewish people, but rather than abandon the mitzvah, they created faux mountains to be able to retain the spirit and letter of the Torah. This reconstruction, imagining our ancestors freshly arrived in the Land, heaping up earth to be able to immediately express their commitment to God and his Torah, is profoundly moving.
One of the many unsettling aspects of the world of COVID-19 is the thwarting of so many of our plans and goals. The inability to actualize things important to us — in our religious lives, our families, professionally — has caused a vertigo and at times paralysis. Rabbi Elazar teaches us that even when the mountaintops that are our goals are inaccessible, we should not succumb to a feeling of defeat. Instead, we need to in the meantime creatively construct new heights to scale within the confines of our present reality.
In four weeks, we will welcome the new year of 5781. Many of us have unfulfilled stirrings of bettering ourselves as parents, children, grandparents or spouses, of growth in our commitment to the Torah, by integrating values like Torah study, daily prayer, Shabbat observance, kashrut and mikveh, but that for a variety of reasons feel like those destinations lie for us behind enemy lines. As descendants of the mound builders, we should remind ourselves that fulfilling aspiration is indeed attainable, even if we may need to form the short-term goals ourselves. PJC
Rabbi Daniel Yolkut is the spiritual leader of Congregation Poale Zedeck. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.