Esor Ben-Sorek

Between Two Mountains

Parashat Ki Tavo is a frightening one. We are standing between two mountains, Ebal and Gerizim. On one mountain we may be blessed but on another mountain we face a litany of dreadful curses and descriptions of punishment. On which mountain will we stand?

I don’t think the choices are very fair. They are like a father speaking to his child: “if you behave nicely you will get an ice cream, but if you behave naughtily you will get a spanking”. The child’s choice is obvious.

God’s promise of His blessings to the righteous are comforting. His threat of curses to the not-so-nice is terrifying.

Glancing with one eye closed, I peruse the list of forbidden things. Some are understandable; others are not.

Punishment for having sex with an animal is one of the understandable. However, having sex with one’s mother-in-law is highly far from understandable. Which man in his right mind would ever choose to have sex with his mother-in-law (unless she looked like Marilyn Monroe)? Such a man could stand on Mt. Gerizim while the mother-in-law who enticed or seduced him will stand on Mt. Ebal.

Six tribes stood on each of the two mountains. As the Levites called out the blessings and the curses, each tribe responded with an “Amen”. It must have been a terrifying moment for many of the tribes, not knowing what to expect. But redemption was at hand.

That is the meaning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when each and every Jew can atone for sins and transgressions and if his atonement is sincere, he may be written in the Book of Life.

(on a moment of sudden frivolity, I am wondering on which mountain Sara Netanyahu will stand).

If we dissect the word “Atonement” into two sections, it is easier to understand what the Day requires of us. On that Day of Awe, each one of us is “at one” with our God. He created the world and all that is therein and He made us the caretakers of His creations. Alas, we have failed to fulfill our promised obligations.

On that one frightening day of each year we stand spiritually naked before the Throne of the Almighty, He who sees and hears and knows our righteousness or our wickedness. Ma nomar l’fanav? What can we say before Him?

We ask to be written and sealed in the Book of Life and Blessings for the new year. But it is NOT God who inscribes us. It is WE OURSELVES. We write our own fate, for blessing or for curse.

The Biblical description of us is as true today as it was four thousand years ago when we were identified as “am k’shai oref”, a stiff-necked, stubborn people. (Our members of Knesset are prime examples) !

The prophet of Midian, Balaam, was engaged by King Balak to come and to curse the Israelites. But as he stood on the mountain peak overlooking the tents of the Israelites he declared “how can I curse a people whom God has blessed? Ma tovu ohalai Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael”… how goodly are the tents of Jacob, the dwelling places of Israel”.

Balaam’s blessing is recited upon entering a synagogue. On his mountain we were blessed. But what made us turn from blessings to curses?

Surely it cannot be because of sex with an animal or with a mother-in-law. More likely it is due to our failure to follow the ways of Aaron, brother of Moses and High Priest of the people of Israel, who is described as an “ohev shalom v’rodef shalom”… a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace.

All of us, including the government of our country, loves peace but regrettably, not all pursue it.

Let us, therefore, strive to be among those who stood on Mount Gerizim and keep a distance from those who lust for Mount Ebal.

With apologies to all the animals and to all the mothers-in-law, blessings for a good and sweet new year.

We stand between two mountains. Which is our choice?

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.