“A Tale of Two Mountains”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, Moses sets before the Jewish people a blessing and a curse, assuring them that the blessing will be theirs if they follow G-d’s commandments and admonishing the nation that if they fail to heed G-d’s instructions they will be cursed.

He then reminds the people to reiterate the blessing and curse when they enter the land (Deuteronomy 11:29): “V’ha’yah kee y’vee’ah’cha Hashem Eh’lo’keh’cha el ha’ah’retz ah’sher ah’tah vah shah’mah l’rish’tah, v’nah’tah’tah et ha’b’racha ahl har gree’zeem v’et ha’k’la’lah ahl har ay’vahl,” And it shall come to pass that when the L-rd, your G-d, brings you to the land to which you come to possess it, then you shall deliver the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal.

Not only does Moses tell the people to be certain to reaffirm the blessings and the curse on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, he also underscores the importance of the mountains by providing a precise geographic description of their location. Moses indicates that the mountains are located on the other side of the Jordan, in the west, near the Plain of Moreh. There also seems to be an allusion to the elaborate ritual that will take place on Mount Gerizim and on Mount Ebal when they enter the land of Canaan, confirming the blessings and the curses (Joshua 8:31-35).

This ritual, described more fully in Deuteronomy 27:11-26, will consist of assembling the people at the two mountains in order to reaffirm the acceptance of the Torah. Six tribes are to stand on Gerizim and the six remaining tribes on Ebal. The ark, the priests and the elders of the Levites are to be positioned in the valley between the mountains. The Levites will call out a series of blessings and curses. The tribes on the mountains will then confirm the curses and blessings by proclaiming Amen after each statement. In effect, this ceremony represents a “Pledge of Allegiance” of sorts to the Torah by the Jewish nation.

Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal are located in the portion of the land that was given to the tribe of Ephraim. The city of Shechem (Nablus) is located between the two mountains. Later, the entire area was occupied by the Cuthites, who referred to Mount Gerizim as the mountain of blessing, and there they built their holy temple.

The smaller of the two mountains, Gerizim, is located on the southern side of the valley of Shechem, and is blessed with fertile land. The taller mountain Ebal, is on the northern side of Shechem and rises to 2900 feet, but is arid and unfertile. Both Gerizim and Ebal are among the highest peaks in the West Bank. Lower down the mountainside of Gerizim is a spring that produces a high yield of fresh water.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) describes in his inimitable style the symbolism of these two mountains:

Gerizim and Ebal are two peaks of the Ephraim range of mountains, which still show striking contrast in their appearance. Gerizim, to the south of the valley of Shechem, presents a smiling green slope rising in fruit-covered terraces to its summit; Ebal, on the north side, [is] steep, barren, and bleak, slightly higher than Gerizim. The two mounts lying next to each other, form accordingly a most telling instructive picture of blessing and curse. They both rise on one and the same soil, both are watered by one and the same fall of rain and dew, the same air breathes over both of them, the same pollen wafts over both of them, and yet Ebal remains in barren bleakness, while Gerizim is clad to its summit in embellishment of vegetation. In the same way, blessing and curse [of the people of Israel] are not conditional on external circumstances, but on our own inner receptivity for the one or the other, on our own behavior toward that which is to bring blessing (Deuteronomy 11:29).

Once again, we see that profound lessons are taught to us, not only through the text of the Torah, but also by its imagery. It is surely not a coincidence that Mounts Gerizim and Ebal are on the periphery of the city of Shechem. It was in that city that Jacob’s daughter Dinah was raped (Genesis 34). It was in the city of Shechem that Dinah’s brothers, led by Simeon and Levi, exacted vengeance on those who dishonored their sister, murdering all the men of the city through subterfuge. It is to the city of Shechem that the brothers of Joseph journeyed (Genesis 37:12) in order to distance themselves from the stress of their home where Joseph was favored, because the city of Shechem was the one place where, after avenging their sister, the brothers truly felt united and powerful.

These mountains of blessing and of curse that surround that ancient city obviously reflect the ambivalent nature of Jewish history, the feelings of victimhood and of unity that the sons of Jacob experienced in Shechem.

It is truly in the hands of the Jewish people to bring the blessing upon themselves by heeding G-d’s word. However, it is also possible to bring the curse by defying G-d. It is we who determine whether our people live with the barren bleakness of Ebal, or partake of the bountiful blessings of Mount Gerizim.

May you be blessed.