Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
– Shakespeare, Macbeth
Albert Camus said that the absurdity of existence can strike one “at any street corner.” I reached that street corner when I was about eight years old. Lying in bed one night, I pictured my life as a streak of bright light painted across a dark globe floating in the midst of the vast darkness of infinite space. What bothered me, and existentialists long before me, is that, while my life is full of light and energy – or “sound and fury”, if you will – when it ends, everything, at least for me, goes to black. It is a black so absolute that it cannot even be termed “black”. So when that candle goes out, I will cease to exist so wholly that my life, my tale, essentially, signifies nothing.
The conclusion that existence is absurd is dependent, of course, on the belief that there is no purposive Creator. The choice between living an objectively meaningful existence or an absurd one is entirely dependent upon whether one lives with the belief that there is a Creator or the belief that there is none.
This choice, I suggest, is conveyed graphically in the covenant made by the Jewish people upon arriving in the land of Israel.
Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, in that ye shall hearken unto the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day; and the curse, if ye shall not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which ye have not known. (Deuteronomy 11:26-28).
These verses refer to the covenant made on mount Gerizim and mount Ebal (Rashi, 11:26). There, the covenantal ceremony was structured such that six tribes stand on mount Gerizim: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, Benjamin; and six tribes stand on mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali (Deuteronomy 27:12-13). The Levites were then instructed to call out a series of blessings and curses after each of which the people responded “amen.”
And so it was, when Joshua lead the people into the land, that they enacted the covenant as Moses commanded:
And all Israel, and their elders and officers, and their judges, stood on this side the ark and on that side before the priests the Levites, that bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, as well the stranger as the home-born; half of them in front of mount Gerizim and half of them in front of mount Ebal; as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, that they should bless the people of Israel. (Joshua 8:33).
The Talmud (Sotah 37a), however, notes a discrepancy between the command by Moses and the effectuation by Joshua in that Moses had the Levites up on mount Gerizim, whereas Joshua had them down in the valley with the ark. A number of solutions are offered to reconcile the texts: (a) all the people with the Levites were actually below; (b) only the Levites that were eligible to serve in the Tabernacle (Rashi: those aged 30 to 50; Maharsha: the Kehat clan) were below; (c) the Levites that were Priests were below.
Now, in addition to the question regarding the Levites, the grouping of the tribes – not used anywhere else in the Torah – poses an even more puzzling aspect of the event. In an article entitled, “The Division of the Tribes on Grizim and Aval”, authors Broyde and Wiener note that, of all the various attempts to explain the grouping of the tribes and the placement of the Levites, the mathematical solution is the most cogent. They explain that there are 462 ways to group twelve tribes into two groups of six. Of all the possible combinations, the grouping commanded by Moses, along with the Talmudic suggestion that only the Levites that were eligible to serve were in the valley below, provides the optimal division of “the tribes into two most equal camps of six tribes each.”
This explanation neatly solves the enigmas arising from the text, giving us a clear picture of the structure of the covenantal event. However, what, it must be asked, is the import of structuring the people evenly on two mountains while the Levites below call out blessings toward one mountain and curses toward the opposite one? Broyde and Wiener suggest that the tribes, evenly balanced between the two mountains, communicate the evenly balanced choice between good and evil.
The choice represented by the two mountains, however, is not merely over whether to do good or to do evil, but a choice to live purposively according to divine will or to live with a “total absence of hope” for objective meaning. In existentialist terms, one either makes the leap of faith or one accepts the absurd. The Torah presents this as a choice between blessing and curse.
The blessing is to be found in choosing to live according to the will of God, for in so doing, the individual has made himself at one with transcendent meaning. And, emphasizes Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (11:28), it is not enough to simply believe in a creator, but rather one must submit to his commands to enjoy the blessing; for only in so doing does one embark on a path of meaningful action. Blessing, then, is really the joy that ensues from following the divine will because it is purposive (See Ohr Hachaim, 11:27; Alshich 11:28).
The curse, in contrast, results from the denial of God and His commandments. In the context of the covenant two words for curse are used: kelalah and arur. Rabbi Hirsch explains that curse (kelalah) is the “condition of becoming empty, devoid of self-substance” … “curse is the positive loss of all of one’s own value” (11:26, 28). Does this not echo the sentiment of Sartre, who said, “Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal”? Rabbi Hirsch explains that curse (arur) connotes: “lonely, desolate … without any future: childless … without joy, without blossom.” (Genesis 3:14). Does this not echo the lament of Camus, who said, “For anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful”?
The covenant at mount Gerizim and mount Ebal was structured to convey the fateful choice, between blessing and curse, in the starkest terms. With the tribes equally divided on two mountains, it is a choice that is wholly given to man to decide: will he choose to climb the mountain of blessed purposiveness, “green and smiling like a garden” or the mountain of accursed meaninglessness, “bleak and bare.”
And while this choice is dependent on faith, it is not dependent on blind faith, for our text opens with the word “Behold!” God is evident to those who only open their eyes. For the Jewish people then, the miracle of the Exodus provided the evidence; for the Jewish people today, the miracle of the ingathering of the exiles must surely give one pause.
The covenant at mount Gerizim and mount Ebal is about choice, one simple choice, on how to live – with faith and meaning or without. This is the choice that God placed before the people of Israel upon arriving in the land, and this is the choice placed before every individual upon arriving at that absurd street corner.
 An important side note to the graphic message of the structure is that the altar was built on mount Ebal. Rabbi Hirsch explains that the root of korban is karev, indicating that the korbanot offered on the altar are to bring man close (karev) to his creator through atonement. I suggest that the very blessed life attests to man being connected to his Creator; and thus in no need of being brought close through ritual means. On the other hand, the altar on Ebal represents the dire need of man for atonement in his rejection of God, the ritual calls out in an attempt to draw him close, to redeem him from the desolation and curse of his absurd existence.