Rabbi David Walk
Probably at least a few of you dear readers remember becoming blood brothers with a close friend as a kid, but not the women out there. It was a guy thing, and pretty disgusting even in those innocent days before fear of HIV. The point was that we would be allies forever, and always be there for the other. It was done very solemnly, and usually ended with a list of terrible curses for one who would break the pact. I'm really surprised in retrospect that none of us got infections or tetanus. We were young and invincible at the time. Well, to a certain extent that's what happens in this week's Torah reading (l'havdil, many havdalot). The Jews are told to make a covenant with God upon arrival in Israel, and then a short list of blessings are presented along with a massively long litany of curses which are rattled off. Isn't it great being Jewish? Why did little Dave and our sainted ancestors need to enumerate these blood curdling and hair raising imprecations for breaking the covenant? That question begins this week's effort.
The simple answer is that covenants are different than regular agreements. In a regular agreement, even if written in contract form, the deal is reciprocal and contingent. A covenant is (believe it or not) unilateral and unconditional. In a normal accord each side agrees to do something if the other side does something. Usually this means payment. I'll mow your lawn if you pay me fifty bucks. Obviously, I won't mow if you don't pay, and you won't pay if I don't mow. But it's not like that in a covenant. In a covenant, I've promised to do something whether you do anything to reciprocate or not. God will be our Lord, even if we don't keep the Torah. We have promised to keep the Torah even if it seems to us that God has absconded to another realm or dimension or whatever. So, covenants don't have the normal coercive force of reciprocity, therefore the custom has existed longer than our people (not to mention my childhood) to conclude covenantal arrangements with curses for anyone who breaks their side of the solemn agreement. But there's more to it. Isn't there always?
The central ceremony of this covenantal procedure entailed the entire nation standing on the slopes of Mount Eival and Mount Gerizim surrounding Shechem, while the Levites stood in the valley between them announcing that the perpetrators of certain sins should be severely cursed. The rest of the nation yelled, "Amen!" Many commentators are fixated on the number of sins listed, namely eleven. There is one position based on the dots above the verse: The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29:28). Moshe was telling the nation that God will take care of crimes committed secretly. The list of sins in this week's Torah reading are also by their nature secret (27:15-25); for example setting up idols in secret, moving boundary markers, fooling a blind person, sexual promiscuity, taking bribes, and hitting someone in secret. So, these eleven items and those eleven dots reference the same style of secretive behavior. But there's another list of eleven elements in our Torah, and that's the aromatic spices in the Temple incense recipe. So, on some spiritual plain, these fragrant heavenly seasonings (Should I have said Celestial Seasonings?) are the antidote for the terrible stench in Divine precincts caused by perpetrating these horrendous sins.
This idea that there might be another list of eleven lurking in Jewish tradition which are the antithesis to these horrible acts cried out by the Levites was suggested by Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340). In this great commentary's exegesis to this week's Torah reading he connects a famous Talmudic statement at the end of Tractate Makot (24a) to our dramatic scene in the hills above Shechem. The Talmud has just taught us that there are six hundred and thirteen mitzvoth, but then to seemingly lessen the load for the faint of heart, there are counter opinions that to really uphold the Torah fewer precepts may be observed. The first spokesperson is King David who says that we only need to uphold (Here it comes!) eleven principles. This list is the bulk of Psalm 15: 1. The one whose path is blameless, 2. who does what is righteous, 3. who speaks the truth from their heart; 4. whose tongue utters no slander, 5. who does no wrong to a neighbor, 6. and casts no slur on others; 7. who despises a vile person, 8. but honors those who fear the Lord; 9. who keeps an oath even when it hurts; 10. who lends money to the poor without interest; 11. who does not accept a bribe against the innocent (verses 2-5). Great list! But is that what it's about? Finding a similar number and just assuming that the parts fit. We know for some people the answer is yes. Gematrias and Biblical numbers games are very popular, but I'd like to think that there's something more.
Rabbeinu Bechaye isn't just making the numbers fit. It's more like a complicated and beautiful puzzle, where the result is satisfying, not just neat. King David's list is about how the world is supposed to be, and that corresponds to the blessings; those horrendous acts proclaimed by the Levites describes a world polluted by perversion, and by rights is cursed. Don't think of the curses like the plagues of Egypt in either the cartoon or the movie. Think of the curses as the blighted scenery resulting from our degeneracy. Ugly is what mankind does to natural beauty.
Now we can understand the world of covenants. When people care and fulfill their responsibilities to each other, the earth and God, it's like Satchmo said, 'It's a Wonderful World.' I'm writing these words in Boulder, CO where the world is indeed beautiful, and there's great ecological effort to keep it that way. Close your eyes and think of a world where everyone in private only behaves selfishly. That's a cursed land.
You can subscribe to Rabbi Walk's weekly articles at WalkThroughTheParshafirstname.lastname@example.org