Joel E. Gimpel

August 23, 2003


Re’eh (”behold”) begins with Hashem placing a blessing and a curse on the Jewish people. The blessing will apply if they obey the commandments, and the curse if they don’t. The parshat tells us that when they cross the Jordan river and enter the land of Israel, the Jews must declare the blessings on lush, verdant mount Gerizim, and the curses on arid and harsh mount Ebal, the two most prominent hills flanking the geographic center of Israel.

Later in Deuteronomy, we’re told that six tribes must stand below one mountain, and six tribes below the other, and all must answer “amen” after each blessing and each curse. I understand that the Talmud refers to this as the Covenant of Mutual Responsibility.

But the Jews already had other covenants. The first, circumcision, tells us that we must be willing to endure pain and shed blood for our relationship with Hashem. The second, Torah, teaches that we are bound to a specific cultural heritage and unique set of laws that determine and color every aspect of our lives. Now, after 40 years of wandering in the desert, Hashem says we have a third covenant to worry about: Mutual Responsibility.

What, precisely, are the Jews commanded to do? Hashem demands that they destroy all those places where people worshiped idols, as well as the idols themselves. The Torah continues with the Code of Laws, which deals not only with religious institutions, but also with government, criminal law, and domestic life, all of which are covered in succeeding portions.

But let’s examine this portion a little closer. Hashem says either you live by his or her commandments or you don’t. There doesn’t seem to be any in-between, and certainly no room for compromise. And in fact, in America today, many people are extreme. Either you approve of President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, or you’re unpatriotic. Either you approve of the government’s whittling away at our civil rights in the hopes of providing better security against those who seek to destroy us and our civil rights, or you’re unpatriotic. A similar situation exists in Israel, where the political spectrum regarding Arab-Israeli relations ranges from “peace now” to “not one inch.”

But one consequence of living, as the Israelis and we do, in nations with opposite forces, is that in order to survive, we must establish a dialectic that suggests that opposites can sometimes compromise in order to proceed and succeed. We must live side by side with those with whom we disagree, and learn from each other. The result, if you’ll pardon my musical training, can sound like a symphony orchestra playing beautiful music. If we don’t, I’m afraid we’ll sound more like out-of-tune jackhammers and remain at loggerheads with each other.

So this Torah portion, written thousands of years ago, contains an important message not only for the people and leaders of Israel, but also for us who live in a young nation that celebrated only its 227th birthday last month. To progress and succeed, our leaders and we must recognize that those who disagree with us may themselves have legitimate feelings and concerns, and that we can learn from them. So, in closing, I urge that we focus on maintaining a dialogue with others rather than a monologue with ourselves.

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