Parshat Ki Tavo gives more details for the ceremony alluded to back in Re’eh, a blessing on Mt. Gerizim and a curse on Mt. Eval. Devarim 27;12-13 tells us which six tribes would be on each mountain (over twenty years ago, in Tradition, friends of mine, R. Michael Broyde and Stephen Wiener, suggested this division split the people as close to evenly as possible).
I wonder about the setup of the ceremony. In Re’eh, Gd wanted us to know we would receive blessings if we fulfilled the mitzvot, the opposite if we did not. Fine; why put the public announcement on two mountains? Especially since we have no reason to think the tribes were divided by religious excellence or lack thereof, to what end did Gd tell us to put some random group of Jew on one mountain, as the putative addressees of the blessing, another group on the cursed mountain, when they would all say amen to both blessings and curses?
The Torah also focuses on curses, which say little about the positive content, what it means to be good, almost as if just avoiding evil is enough to count as good. Rashi tries to cover up the problem by assuming the Levi’im would first turn towards Gerizim and say “blessed is the one who—” then turn to Eval to say “cursed is the one who—”
Except the blessing was for “anyone who did not x.” There’s little positive content, other than the last one, which curses one who does not fulfill the Torah and, in reverse, bless those who did. Is staying away from evil really enough to count as hearkening to Gd’s Voice and commandments?
The answer that comes to my mind does tap into a theme of mine, so I may be imposing myself on the text rather than listening to it. Caveat registered, it still seems to me the Torah might have had the Jews go on separate mountains, one the locus of blessing, the other of curse, to make a point of the need for a clear line between good and evil. To say x is good, its reverse bad, is more words, no more impactful than any other part of the Torah.
As the nation embarked on its conquest of the Land, Gd gave them a physical embodiment of the difference between the most serious evils, and refraining from those evils. The bedrock of the nation, I am suggesting, lay in knowing what to avoid. It’s all well and good to serve Gd positively and actively, but it starts with knowing what is absolutely unacceptable, what deserves to be cursed. And, for a positive spin, it is worth the people seeing and hearing that even just avoiding such behavior garners some level of blessing.
And what were those actions? There’s much to be said, but my eye is drawn to the fact that four of the twelve sins listed are sexual, and two more are explicitly described as happening ba-seter, in secret. (It seems clear to me encroaching on another’s borders and/or miscarrying justice would be in secret as well, but I cannot prove it).
What happens in secret matters to the fiber of the society, I suggest, and it is vital that everyone know the red lines. It may be true, as we read later in the Torah, that ha-nistarot la-Shem Elokeinu, Gd takes care of punishing hidden wrongdoing, but we are supposed to know how serious a matter it is.
We were told to stage a drama to emphasize it, to make it stark and clear: those who go in the direction of Gerizim are blessed, the direction of Eval are cursed, for what they do when no one else sees them.
Societies are built on what happens in the shadows, I am reading the Torah to be telling us. Injustice and immorality usually know better than to come out in the open. As the Jewish people start their national life, they were to remind themselves, visually and dramatically, of the bright line between evil and not, especially for when no other human being will see them. Because it’s what we do when only Gd sees us that tells us what our society really stands for and emphasizes.