Mt. Grizzim: A Response to Charlottesville

I wonder these days how much fear controls our lives and thoughts. Many of us will remember the fear we felt during the first intifada…

Do we still travel to Israel? Do we take buses once we are there? Do we send our children there for a year? Will fear define our relationship with Israel or will it be defiance?

I wonder how much a similar type of fear plays a role in our attitude to current events. The testimony of the rabbi of the synagogue in Charlottesville is most startling: “It’s something else when [the] hate emerges in front of you… for half an hour three men dressed in fatigues, holding semi-automatic rifles, stood in front of our synagogue… I felt it safer for us to exit through the back of the synagogue…”

While we know that America has been a very kind, and safe place for Jews, recent events may begin to unnerve us. While we know the 21st century has enabled Jewish communities across the world to generally be affluent, comfortable and safe, in light of the events in Charlottesville, and other terrible attacks in Europe, the world certainly feels to us a little less safe.

It is worth mentioning these feelings out loud. We must talk about them, and consider their influence over us. If we do not acknowledge these feelings they may begin to own us and can turn into anger, and aggressive attitudes. For us to control our fears, we need to know that they exist.

Now let us not pretend that we are experiencing a similar anti-Semitism to the ugly hatred expressed in the early 1930s Germany. We are blessed to live mostly peaceful lives in a country whose core values are define by human rights, dignity and generosity. We pray that the values continue to define this country for a long time to come. The golden age of American Jewry, our relative safety over the last 40 years, shouldn’t cause us to dismiss the deep routed fear we may be feeling following the events of these past weeks but the opposite may be true as well. The fears shouldn’t define us.

Upon the brink of entering the Promised Land, the Jewish people received instructions from Moses regarding an unusual, and once in history religious ceremony.

וְהָיָ֗ה כִּ֤י יְבִֽיאֲךָ֙ יְה-ה אֱלֹ-יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה בָא־שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּ֑הּ וְנָתַתָּ֤ה אֶת־הַבְּרָכָה֙ עַל־הַ֣ר גְּרִזִ֔ים וְאֶת־הַקְּלָלָ֖ה עַל־הַ֥ר עֵיבָֽל׃

“And when God will bring you into the land of your inheritance, you are to pronounce blessings over Mt. Grizzim, and curses over Mt. Eval.”

Upon the realization of this ancient promises, the Jewish people were confronted with two stark realities. Two daunting mOU gains will welcome the Jewish people into the Promised land, and immediately the entire nation is to climb them. Once conquered, these twin peaks will ceremoniously be blessed or cursed in front of all of Israel.

Rabbi Dovid Zirkind, the associate rabbi of the Jewish Center in Manhattan, drew my attention to an explanation of this unusual ceremony offered in the commentary of Rav S.R. Hirsch.

Consider carefully the words of Rav Hirsch, and just how powerful they are:

“Both of them rise from the same soil, both are watered by the same rain and dew. The same air passes over them both: the same pollen is blown over them both. Yet Mount Eival (Ebal) remains starkly barren, while Gerizim is covered with lush vegetation to its very top. In the same way, blessing and curse are not dependent on external circumstances, but on our inner receptivity to one or the other, on our attitude, toward that which brings blessing. When we cross the Yarden and take our first steps on the soil of the Law that sanctifies us, the sight of these two mountains teaches us that we ourselves by our own moral conduct, decide whether we are headed for Mount Gerizim or Mount Eival” (Hirsch Chumash p. 234)

Rav Nissan Kaplan, the rosh yeshiva of Mir, derives from this eloquent description, an insight that questions a widespread , and accepted modern attitude. Generally we believe that we are a product of our environment. This attitude releases us from taking complete responsibility for our actions. We surrender ourselves to the circumstances of our existence and relinquish the opportunity to become better people. We often convince ourselves that if we had been born into money, or we had been sent to better schools, or provided certain opportunities, things in our lives would be different; we would be different. But we have no choice to become the people we were predestined to be.

Rav Hirsch suggests that Mt. Grizzim delands otherwise.

If we want to live lives filled with blessing, like the lush green Grizzim, it is not the external factors that bring blossoms and sprouts but it is what we contain within each of ourselves. It is our internal moral and spiritual compass, our deep yearning to be close with God, that will bring us to the peak of Mt. Grizim. If we desire to be a worthy recipient for God’s blessings, we cannot let our circumstances restrain our potential, we cannot permit external forces to overwhelm our core values, identity and mission.

This past week has been jolting for the Jewish community on a whole. We’ve always known that there are people out there who hate us, and Jewish history has not permitted us to forget it. In the most deeply emotional manner though, this fear found within our souls is placed upon us by external factors. This fear that can be controlling and harmful but doesn’t need to be.

We owe it to ourselves, our families, our community, and the world at-large to not be controlled by the external fears of anti-semites. Our mission is to be seekers of blessing.

In the words of Rav Hirsch:

“Crossing the Jordan and treading the soil of the Land of Torah, the sight of those two mounts preaches to us the eternal sermon :- that we are placed between the alternative of blessing or curse, and by our own moral behavior we have to decide for ourselves for a Gerizim or Eival Future”

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃

“See I place before you, today, blessing and curse”

It up to us to choose life, to champion hope and to bring more blessing into this world. It is on our shoulders to insist the we be climbing to the peak of Grizzim and no other mountain.

In the coming days we will begin the month of Elul. This month, dedicated to introspection and repentance demands us to seek God. While every external factor, every card we are dealt, may make the peak seem harder to reach, know it is not the external influences that will hold us back.

As the Jewish people entered a new phase in Jewish history, a phase with a Jewish homeland, God’s message to them is the sky’s the limit. External factors be dammed, you can reach the peak of Grizzim if you have the grit, determination, and you remain focused on your mission at hand.

Recent history has felt at times all encompassing. Not being able to remain focused on the mission at hand, the news cycle, the terror, and the drama of the day, can control our perspective, our actions and attitudes to one another. Grizzim demands of us more. It requities us to look within ourselves, and not shirk responsibility for who we are, and what we stand for.

May the month ahead be filled with the gritty determination of the pioneering Jewish Nation that, while they were bidding farewell to their greatest of leader, Moses, they remained focused on the task at hand. Building a Holy Land, climbing to the peak of Mt. Grizzim.

About the Author
Formerly the Rabbi of the Pikesville Jewish Congregation, Assistant Rabbi of Cong. Ohab Zedek in NYC, and Assistant Rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue, Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer is the Founding Campus Rabbi of the Jewish Leadership Academy (JLA). JLA ( is a brand new prep school opening in August 2023, offering the Jewish community's brightest students a robust educational program and a cutting edge campus, in the heart of Miami, to achieve their academic goals.
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