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A Carrot or a Stick

08/31/2023 04:31:57 PM

Aug31

Moses says to the people: after you have crossed the Jordan river, half of you will stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people, and half of you will stand for the curse on Mount Ebal. So half the tribes go up one mountain, and half up the other, and the Levites, from Mountain Gerizim, will shout a series of blessings and curses to all. To each curse the people respond “Amen”. Presumably the pronouncement is something like an Alpine yodel.

As someone who frequently hikes around mountains, I have no realistic idea of how you could possibly hear someone on the next mountain over. Are there no trees? Where are all the people standing? Are they lined up on a cliff edge somewhere?

I find this passage hard to understand and the staging isn’t even the most confusing part. Why are half the tribes on a whole different mountain? Are they being cursed? Are they warning against a curse? Is this all for the sake of antiphony?

And before Moses tells the people to split between the mountains, Moses and the Elders tell all of Israel to plaster stones with words of Torah and put them all around Mount Ebal and build an altar there. I imagine it’s meant to look like a sort of stela of the law, but the image I get from this passage is a delightful summer camp with verses of Torah hand painted on smooth stones nestled among the trees. Why would we built an altar on, and festoon with Torah, a mountain that is associated with a cruse?

So I have a theory. Different people need different instruction. Some of us are very highly praise motivated. We want blessings so we know we’re on the right path, so we feel assured of our relationship with others and with God. We are reward motivated. But for some of us, maybe praise rings hollow. We don’t hear any blessings anymore, but the words of criticism lodge in our gut. Or maybe the solid structure of a world of consequences and rules gives us a sense of purpose and integrity.

I’m not particularly curse motivated myself, but maybe the lesson is this: the people are equally divided. There is no “better” way of receiving Torah. Some of us need more rigid structure, and some of us need to feel appreciation and reward.

Yet we might each assume that our own preferred method ought to be someone else’s. Maybe you thrive in a world of consequences and curses, so you’ll remind the people around you of the threat. But maybe your sibling, spouse, or friend, is a Mount Gerizim kind of person. Maybe he or she wants blessings, not threats. So this shabbat, when we try to motivate, inspire, and connect with those we love, remember that not everyone responds to the same Torah. Can you, like the Levites, say what you need to say in words that everyone can hear? Shabbat shalom!

Sun, April 21 2024 13 Nisan 5784