Every family has its own journey through this disruption, and ours is more blessed than most. First, we evacuated our apartment (located in a college dorm) when my children’s school was the first to be quarantined. Then we returned, and got coronavirus right before Passover. We struggled to get food safely, and to survive the anxiety and fear of the illness, while pulling off some semblance of the normal and meaningful. Then we were isolated from family and friends and backyard-less. Then we were under strict curfew and our neighborhood was full of looting and unrest. Our summer plans were destroyed. We have navigated these circumstances with abundant blessing and support. And yet, even as the sun shines brighter and the city slowly opens, even as we see family and friends through more relaxed guidelines, the hammer has fallen long and hard, even for the privileged, in Manhattan.
One day in June, we were interrupted. My children were fighting or complaining about who-knows-what (because who can really keep track at this point?) and I managed to get access for the first time to the 21st floor rooftop of our building. Until then, I hadn’t even known it was accessible. We climbed in the elevator, stepped outside, and were engulfed with the grace and humility of sweeping blue skies. As my kids debated whether the people below looked like spiders or ants, we settled into the peace and comfort of this broader perspective. Of looking down and around at a panoramic view, of seeing your life and circumstances pull into focus. Then, it was easy to breathe deeply, and remember that the pace of progress is slow, but coming. We are in the dance and the hammer is lifting.
In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, Moses sets the stage for an elaborate ceremony (recounted with more detail in Ki Tavo 27, Jeremiah 34, and Talmud Sotah 32a). The tribes are divided between two mountains, with a valley in between. On one, Mount Gerizim, fertile and lush, they are to recount the blessings for fidelity to G-d and G-d’s commandments. On the opposing mountain, Mount Eval, barren and rocky, they are to learn about the harsh consequences of veering off the Torah path, rejecting G-d, and worshiping foreign values.
The choreography of this gathering is not incidental and perhaps contrasts directly to the staging of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. This event is not a hierarchical interaction in which G-d’s voice is transmitted from the top of the mountain to Moses, while different categories of leadership are distributed in ranking order on the mountain, while the masses listen with awe, scattered with their families behind barriers at the foot of the mountain. Rather, this time, the Kohanim and Leviim encircled the Ark in the valley — at the foot of the hills! — while all of the tribes congregated at the tops of both mountains. Furthermore, in this second gathering, there were no bells and whistles, no fireworks, earth tremors, trumpets, nor Divine clouds.
It is the collective Jewish people, at the top of the mountain, who are asked to choose good.
All of us have experienced the transcendent experience of viewing our surroundings or our world from a height — a mountain, a plane. It is in those moments that we get a window into our tremendous capacity as human beings to look beyond our surroundings and connect to ideas, values, movements that are far bigger than we are. In those moments, we are also often gripped by a sense of our limitations. As we watch the familiar sights and sounds become gradually smaller and the sounds gradually fainter, we are reminded that we too are each but a speck in space and time.
Dr. Abraham Maslow famously developed the human hierarchy of needs. In his original work, he outlined that every human being is motivated to fulfill increasingly more complex needs as more fundamental needs are met: physiological and survival needs are replaced with safety, belongingness and love, esteem, and then self-actualization. Yet, an oft overlooked amendment was placed at the peak, self-transcendence. Whereas self-actualization highlights the pursuit of fulfilling personal potential, self-transcendence describes a commitment to connect to a higher ideal, service, cause, community, or Divine being. Scholars note that although these needs were depicted as sequential, it is possible for humans to be driven by multiple tiers of needs simultaneously. For example, Dr. Victor Frankl, wrote a poignant and moving work about man’s main driving force being the search for meaning, even or especially during the most traumatic times, such as his experience of unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust.
The parsha ends with a reminder that not only during times of gravity and reckoning are we asked to transcend ourselves, but also and especially in times of joy. As the Torah describes the tremendous joy experienced when gathering to celebrate the major holidays, they are reminded repeatedly, “You shall rejoice before G-d with your son and daughter, your male and female slave . . . and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst.” We are reminded again of our own experience as slaves in Egypt. Even our joy is only rendered spiritually complete when we include the other, the most vulnerable, and reckon with our collective history of vulnerability and the values they inspire.