Be’er Yosef: Some of the questions have been asked many times before. What is there to “see” in a set of blessings and curses? Why does the pasuk begin with the singular (re’eh) and quickly transition to the plural (lifneichem)? How can the word “today” be appropriate for a protocol designed to be implemented for the first time only in the time of Yehoshua, years in the future?
A more fundamental question ought to trouble us as well. The gemara2 explains that six shevatim stood atop one mountain, and another six upon the other. The kohanim and levi’im stood in the valley between them, reading the blessings and curses. They faced Har Gerizim and pronounced a blessing, and all would signal their affirmation with an “amen.” Then they would turn to Har Eival, and pronounce a curse. Again, all would proclaim their affirmation by responding with an “amen.” And so they continued through the list.
This is difficult to comprehend. Everyone in the end affirmed both the berachos and the kelalos. Would it not have been simpler for the kohanim to have read both blessings and curses to the entire people, assembled as a single group? And should they not have done this from atop the mountain, with the people standing below? We see that it is customary in many cultures for a preacher to speak from an elevated position, not from below looking up!
We could suggest that answers can be found to all these questions if we accept that the subtext of our pesukim is a passage in the gemara3 speaking to the person contemplating committing an aveirah. The gemara advises that he should imagine the world neatly balanced between merit and guilt. His next action will tip the scales – and the Divine reaction – in one direction or the other. The fate of the entire world and all its inhabitants, therefore, lies in his hands.
The very thought is empowering, placing remarkable responsibility in the hands of every individual. It speaks of a scenario, however, that seems improbable. Not having experienced it except in our imaginations, it is a script that is easy to ignore. The Torah commanded, therefore, that the Bnei Yisrael be treated to a dramatization of this set of circumstances, so that each individual might come to understand the power of his choice and the consequences of his faulty decisions. They would look around, and see a nation divided into two halves, one representing merit and innocence, and the other representing demerit and guilt. They would literally “see” before their eyes representations of berachah and kelalah!
Those who took part in the Gerizim-Eival covenant would walk away with a powerful image of a community precisely poised between good and evil, awaiting the next person to make a difference. That person – in fact, every person at all times, is to “see” himself (re’eh, in the singular) as responsible for the well-being of the entire community (lifneichem, in the plural).
The unusual positioning of the crowd relative to the speaker might be a statement about the lofty level of the Jewish people, even at times of their failure. R. Yochanan ben Zakai came across the daughter of Nakdimon ben Gurion searching for edible kernels of grain in the dung of donkeys during the siege of Yerushalayim. “Ashreichem Yisrael – fortunate are you Yisrael! When you follow the dictates of Hashem, none can prevail over you. When you don’t, you are given over to any lowly nation, and even to the donkey of a lowly nation.” His point was that the Jewish people do not fit into the ordinary scheme of history and causality. They live under the authority of Hashem alone, and no other force. When they disobey Him, He removes His protection from them, leaving them at the mercy of all others. Their fate even at times of disloyalty thus points to their intrinsic worth, of intrinsically belonging solely to Hashem. The Gerizim/Eival covenant placed the Jewish people – those representing loyal behavior and those representing the opposite – above those who would address them, in appreciation of this fact.
All in all, the covenant of Har Grizim and Har Eival must have had a great impact on the Jewish people who came into the Land. It impressed upon them the importance of the Jewish mission for a Torah people, as well as the enormous responsibility of every Jew.
1. Based on Be’er Yosef, Devarim 11:26-29 2. Sotah 37A 3. Kiddushin 40B