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“Don’t Climb Every Mountain,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

August 11, 2023 | 24 Av 5783

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

As we ascend toward Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this week’s Torah portion offers an important reminder about the way we approach our lives.

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse:
(Deuteronomy 11:26)

It seems pretty straightforward. In the wilderness, Moses tried to prepare the people before they were to cross over the Jordan River. He even used visual aids. That was what we used before PowerPoint presentations.

From their vantage point, they could see two mountains. One was lush, covered in moss and foliage. A stream ran along the bottom nourishing the earth, the epitome of blessing. The other mountain right next to it lay barren, parched and naked, cursed by its inability to flourish.  Both served as the physical embodiment of the choice set before the fledgling nation. Blessing or curse, which one would they choose.

It turns out it actually wasn’t an either/or nor a both/and proposition.  The actual challenge was in the choice, in making a choice, in the perpetual call upon our forbears and now upon us to engage in choice making.

We are constantly making choices. They are not always as stark as the two mountains facing the ancient Israelites. Paths diverge in front of us every day, every minute, and probably every second. We are making choices about our thoughts, our actions, our very existence even when we don’t realize we are making them. And then when we offer the Al cheyt as a confession, we are saying we made this choice and not that choice. Choosing is as much a part of our life as is breathing. When we stop making choices we cease to exist as active human beings engaged with the world.

So, we ask, how do we know what the right choice is? The first word of our parashah is an important clue: Re’eh, רְאֵ֗ה, see. Why use this word to get the attention of the people? On one level, it was for practical reasons. Moses was about to draw their attention to the ancient power point before them of the two mountains. If they didn’t look, how would they get his message about the ramifications of their choice making?

But his instruction was more than the literal viewing. Re’eh, רְאֵ֗ה also means to inspect, perceive, and consider. Moses was asking them to pay attention to their ability to make the choice. That decision would belong to them. Their attention needed their intention to discern the power of their choices and judgments.

These cautionary words are addressed to us as well in these preparatory weeks before we gather for the holiest of days of introspection and reflection. The choices we make open up the possibility for blessing. The decisions of how we regard one another, the language and attitude we assert in relationships, and the kind of kindnesses we offer are choices before us.

Which mountain will you climb? The one with blessing? The one with curses?

You get to decide.

Shabbat Shalom!

I continue to value the many comments you exchange with me through these Shabbat Awakenings.  Share with me what you think. Your email goes directly to me!

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Rabbi Elaine Zecher