With this as an introduction, Chapter 27 describes the dramatic ritual which will be performed once Israel reaches the Promised Land. With six tribes gathered on Mt. Grizim, the other six on Mt. Eival, with the Kohanim (priests) and Levi’im (Levites) in the valley between the two, the Kohanim and Levi’im will pronounce a series of twelve curses for specific sins to which the nation will respond, “Amen!” Chazal (our blessed sages) suggest that the sins included on the list are transgressions which are likely to be committed in secret, or via a sense of entitlement by someone whose position leads them to believe they are above the law. Rashi holds that each one of the 12 was intoned twice; once in the form of a blessing directed at Mt. Grizim, then repeated as a curse in the direction of Mt. Eival.
As if this dramatic demonstration of blessings vs. curses wasn’t clear enough, Moshe then begins the Tochacha, or reproof, restating and elucidating the version given previously in Vayikra (Leviticus) 26. The text is no holds barred; both the blessings and the curses go over the top. After effusive promises as to the abundant good which will occur if Israel sticks with their mitzva mission, the text spends 54 verses describing what will happen if we do not, in stark and harrowing detail, far more than the previous version. It appears that Moses and the Torah are setting up the brachot (blessings) and klalot (curses) as a clearly binary choice—good vs. bad with the clear implication that we should try and tip our personal scales in the direction of the good.
But… since when is any choice between polar opposites quite that cut and dry? I’m certain that the average Ukrainian draftee would never have considered taking a life until Russia forced the issue by not discriminating between soldier and civilian. We clearly have a mandate to perform mitzvot; what happens if an individual is unable to do so due to personal circumstances, lack of skill or knowledge, or lack of opportunity? The last of the litany of 12 sins enumerated on the two mountains is, “Accursed be the one who will not uphold the words of this Torah to perform them (Deuteronomy 27:26).” That covers a lot of ground, doesn’t it? I can name a few mitzvot that most of us could not observe in modernity even if we wanted to. Does that make us automatically subject to the curses?
I’d like to propose another way to look at the brachot and klalot. Blessing is the absence of curse, and curse is the absence of blessing. In the ongoing, dynamic relationship between the two, the control mechanism is the Torah, as we live it. In reference to 27:26, Ramban wrote that the sin is not a failure to observe the entire Torah; the transgression is failing to accept the overarching validity of the Torah as a whole. That suggests that state of mind and kavannah, intention, are the most important aspects of the blessing/curse continuum. This is not to say that performing as many mitzvot as possible isn’t important; it’s vital. The normal yin and yang of life, however, provides what can be an ongoing inspiration or an ongoing distraction. Our daily, weekly, monthly, and annual goals should not be focused on the maintenance of the bracha/klala balance. Doing so tends to commoditize the values of the opposites; we all have a tendency, even in the best of circumstances, to laud the good (as we see it) and vilify what we perceive as its opposite. Instead of turning our attention from side to side, our challenge should be to constantly look upward, to G-d, through the wisdom and inspiration of the Torah.
Consider this: In order for it to rain, moisture must first evaporate from the surface of the earth to form clouds. Only then can the droplets condense and fall back to the ground. If we are able to maintain our focus on our Heavenly Parent, our efforts will surely be rewarded by the Divine One with that goodness returning to earth, providing nourishment to all of humanity.
Regardless of which mountain you’re standing on.
Rabbi/Hazzan David B. Sislen