I live in Los Gatos, California which is on the edge of the Santa Clara Valley. Now called Silicon Valley, when I arrived here in 1990 you could still find the remnants of the orchards that prompted this area to be known in earlier generations as the "Garden of the World," or the "Valley of Heart's Delight." From Los Gatos you can look out to both ends of the valley. To the east you see the Diablo Range which is dry and parched most of the year. The Diablo Range is not high enough to catch the incoming moisture at the higher altitudes and is blocked from getting the lower moisture from the coast by other coastal ranges. Summers on the Diablo Range are particularly hot. But looking west from Los Gatos, you see the Santa Cruz Mountains, home of ancient redwood trees that remain green and moist year round due to the fog that comes in off the Pacific Ocean.
In ancient times, lacking YouTube or other audiovisual tools, poets and prophets needed to use natural phenomena as the illustrations for their discourses. They understood that "a picture is worth a thousand words," and that a visual can make the case at a more visceral level than mere words. For that reason when trying to drive home the lesson of the blessings and curses in Parashat Ki Tavo, it was natural to look for some striking example in the world around them.
"As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Teaching . . . . After you have crossed the Jordan, the following shall stand on Mount Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And for the curse, the following shall stand on Mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali" (Deuteronomy 27:2-13).
Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim provided a dramatic contrast. Both located in the mountain range of the tribe of Ephraim, they are very different places. A guide book from 1852 noted, "The contrast in their appearance can still be clearly seen. Mount Gerizim, located to the south in the valley of Shechem is verdant with gardens covering the terraces on its slope. Mount Eival (Ebal), on the north side, is steep, barren, and desolate."1
The ceremony on these two mountains is also mentioned in Deuteronomy 11:29 as the introduction to Moses's third speech, the long collection of legal materials that extends from chapter 12 through chapter 25, concluding with the pronouncement of blessings and curses, which is our Torah portion this week.
The practice of writing on stones coated with plaster was familiar within the ancient Near East. Writing over plaster was common in Egypt. Semitic inscriptions on plaster were found in the Sinai2 and also in Jordan.3
While these stones seem to be free standing monoliths in Deuteronomy, at least in the first several verses, by the Book of Joshua they have been transformed. Now the writing is on the altar itself, so as to avoid any similarity between these stones and the forbidden matzeivot, sacred pillars denounced in Deuteronomy 16:22.
"At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, as Moses, the servant of the Lord, had commanded the Israelites-as it written in the Book of the Teaching of Moses-an altar of unhewn stone upon which no iron had been wielded. They offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord, and brought sacrifices of well-being. And there, on the stones, he inscribed a copy of the Teaching that Moses had written for the Israelites. All Israel-stranger and citizen alike-with their elders, officials, and magistrates, stood on either side of the Ark, facing the levitical priests who carried the Ark of the Lord's Covenant. Half of them faced Mount Gerizim and half of them faced Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded them of old, in order to bless the people of Israel. After that, he read all the words of the Teaching, the blessing and the curse, just as it written, in the Book of The Teaching." (Joshua 8:30-34)
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues that the meaning of this ceremony goes further than the vivid contrast of the mountains. The mountains have, in his mind, similar topography, climate, and experiences, yet produce a different result. In that way they teach that it is the choices we make, and not our circumstances, that are life determining.
"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 p. 234).4
This passage reminds me of an experience I had as a young rabbi. Because two older members of the congregation who were shut-ins lived near each other I usually ended up visiting them on the same day. Their physical situations were rather similar but emotionally they were worlds apart. The woman who was slightly more infirm had no family but appreciated the occasional visits of friends. She saw herself as blessed. Though the other woman was more physically able and was visited by her son almost daily, she often focused on what was not right in her life at the time. She asked me over and over why she was so cursed in her life. These women were my own personal Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, living reminders that is it how we frame our experiences, rather than the experiences themselves, that shapes our outlook.
1 Joseph Schwartz, Das Helige Land, (Frankfurt: Kauffmann Publisher, 1852), as quoted in Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: The Five Books of the Torah, Sefer Devorim (New York: Feldheim Publishers, 2009), p. 234
2 Jeffrey H. Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary, Deuteronomy (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996), p. 247
3 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses (New York:W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), p. 1,008
4 Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: The Five Books of the Torah, Sefer Devorim (New York: Feldheim Publishers, 2009), p. 234
Rabbi Melanie Aron is the senior rabbi at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California. She has served on the URJ Board of Trustees and as chair of the URJ Committee on Adult Jewish Learning, and is involved in interfaith activities in her community.