Deuteronomy 11:29 foreshadows an elaborate ritual in which blessings and curses are recited at the hills of Ebal and Gerizim, just across the Jordan River in the Promised Land. “V’natata et ha-brachah al-Har G’rizim v’et ha-k’lalah al-Har Eival,” it says. “You shall pronounce the blessing upon Mount Gerizim, and the curse upon Mount Ebal” (translation mine).
The ceremony is described in greater detail in chapters 27 and 28, and later in Joshua, chapter 8: the tribes of Israel divide in two and stand on the appointed hills, and Israel’s leaders stand in the valley between them to proclaim God’s words to each side.
In his commentary on the Torah, however, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1164 C.E.) seems unconcerned with the need to bring our parashah into consonance with the later biblical scenes. Instead, Ibn Ezra presents a very different reading of the mountain ceremony; he tells us that we are to read Deuteronomy’s ritual of blessings and curses as being analogous to the scapegoat ritual in Leviticus 16.
It may be that Ibn Ezra was intrigued by the fact that Deuteronomy 11:29 and Leviticus 16:21 contain the same Hebrew root, (nun-tav-nun, translated as “pronounce” in Deuteronomy 11:29 and as “putting” in Leviticus 16:21) and the same preposition (al, “on” or “upon”). In any case, he reads our verse as describing not the pronouncement’s location but its object. For Ibn Ezra, when God orders that the curse shall be placed upon Mount Ebal, the commandment is not about where the tribes of Israel are to stand; instead, it teaches that the hill itself will absorb the words of condemnation.
Ibn Ezra’s suggestion is as distressing as it is innovative. Can it be that some places’ essential nature is one of blessing or curse? Are we to learn from this teaching that certain locations on earth are inherently favored by God and others are inherently despised?
Certainly, such a reading might fit with much of the rest of the parashah. Much of this portion asserts emphatically that some places of Israelite settlement will be appropriate for religious ritual and others will not. Within the Promised Land, only the central Temple in Jerusalem will be acceptable as a site of cultic sacrifice; all smaller regional shrines must be eliminated. In addition to shutting down the sites of local worship, Parashat R’eih also establishes another category of accursed and degraded places. Any town subverted by idolatry, we are taught, must be reduced to rubble and remain decimated as “an everlasting ruin” (Deuteronomy 13:17) after its spoil has been gathered into the town square and set afire.
Thus, Parashat R’eih does teach us that even within the Promised Land, there are some territories that are holy and others that are profane. But these teachings may feel somewhat surprising. We might previously have thought of the “Holy Land” as a place in which holiness adheres to the very rocks and soil of the country. Doesn’t the belief in an intrinsically sacred homeland, after all, underpin the most basic principles of Zionism? Isn’t the notion that the Jews deserve a homeland of their own a realization of the Tanach’s religious promise?
On the contrary, classical Zionism did not advocate Jewish settlement and statehood in Palestine because its soil was holy. Instead, its utilitarian secular perspective promoted the establishment of a Jewish state as a refuge for the oppressed and an incubator for our people’s loftiest character traits. Indeed, many early Zionists dismissed the notion that the Middle East was the proper place to establish a thriving Jewish homeland at all! For these thinkers, the location of the land itself is relatively unimportant, compared to the values upon which a Jewish state should be built. Witness the words of one essayist who suggested that the Zionist urge might in fact be best directed not toward Palestine, but toward North America:
In the Holy Land our dream would be far from realized; there we would be slaves to the Sultan and the Pashas; there, as here, we would bear a heavy burden in the midst of a wild desert people. . . . But in America our dream is closer to fulfillment. (Yehuda Leib Levin, trans. L. Sachs, “To America or to the Land of Israel,” Hamagid 25, No. 39, October 6, 1881, pp. 321–22, reprinted in The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History, second edition, ed. Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz [New York: Oxford University Press, 1995], pp. 413–414)
For Levin, a Jewish state in Palestine would be apt to impede, not nourish, the growth of Jewish independence and Jewish mission. Instead of aiming for land thought to be promised us by God, he asserts, we would do best to direct our nationalist impulse toward the places in which Jewish freedom would be most likely to flourish: in this case, the United States of America.
Needless to say, Zionism eventually became impossible to separate from settlement in Palestine. Even before the nightmare of the Holocaust, normative Zionism came to center on statehood in our ancient Promised Land. Less than thirty-five years after Levin, Judge Louis D. Brandeis took a dramatically different tack when promoting Jewish settlement in Palestine. He wrote:
In the Jewish colonies of Palestine there are no Jewish criminals; because everyone, old and young alike, is led to feel the glory of his people and his obligation to carry forward its ideals. (“Zionism is Consistent with American Patriotism,” June 1915, The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History, second edition), p. 497)
Anyone who has visited the modern State of Israel will smile bemusedly at the suggestion that every Israeli “feel[s] the glory of his people and his obligation to carry forward its ideals,” to say nothing of the notion that there are no Jewish criminals there! Nevertheless, Brandeis’s essay reminds us that what makes Israel a holy place is not the sanctity of its hills and valleys; instead, it is the values and ideals of its people. Zionism becomes a sacred pursuit when it is undertaken not for the purpose of colonizing territory thought to be holy, but as a search for fertile ground in which Jewish ideas, ethics, creativity, and independence can blossom.
And so, with our perspective of Zionism thus properly realigned, we can finally understand what Ibn Ezra hoped to teach about this Torah portion. If the thing that makes particular places blessed is their capacity to nurture morality and intellectual discovery, then we must seek to settle in and sustain those places. On the other hand, it is also our religious duty to avoid settling in—or settling for—places cursed with shortsightedness, depravity, or hopelessness.
True Zionism means knowing that God’s favor does not rest on any one particular mountain or river or valley. Instead, places attain their sacred character through the human spiritual endeavor of working for freedom and searching for truth. In this way (as both Levin and Brandeis might find themselves surprised to agree with one another), we can all set about doing the hard and holy work of making our own homes, wherever on the map they may be, into Promised Lands.
Rabbi Oren J. Hayon is associate rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. He received his undergraduate education at Rice University, and received rabbinical ordination from the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004. Rabbi Hayon welcomes feedback from readers at email@example.com.