The Common Denominator — Parshas Ki Savo

In one of the Torah’s most dramatic images, Moses commands the people that, upon crossing the Jordan River and entering the Land of Israel, they will divide themselves into two groups; half will ascend Mount Eval and half will ascend Mount G’rizim, where they will affirm the blessings and curses intoned by the tribe of Levi from the valley between the mountains.

For all its drama, Moshe’s instructions raise some perplexing questions.  First is the division of the people.  On Mount Eval, the tribes of Reuven, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan, and Naphtali would receive the curses; on Mount G’rizim, the tribes of Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Yissachar, Yosef, and Binyomin would receive the blessings.

The commentaries labor to explain this division, and none of them truly succeeds.  There seems to be no logic to the arrangement of tribes, neither according to age or birth-mother.  Moreover, why does the tribe of Levi both give and receive the blessings and curses?  Why do some of the tribes receive only blessings whereas the others receive only curses?  Why are only curses articulated in the Torah, and how to we understand the seemingly haphazard list of crimes associated with the curses?

Let us attempt the answer the last question first, then work our way back.  Included in these curses are the crimes of idolatry in private, crimes of deviance within the home, taking advantage of the weak, moving the boundary marker of a neighbor’s property, and taking a bribe to put an innocent man to death.  The final inclusion is one “who does not uphold and keep the entire Torah.”

In short, the list of curses results from crimes committed in secret, when there may be no witness and no one to come to the aid of the defenseless.  Indeed, it is possible for one to appear outwardly righteous and pious, while secretly neglecting or perverting the most fundamental Torah laws.

If so, this may explain why only the curses are mentioned.  The Torah has no need to articulate new blessings for one who follows the Torah with diligence and sincerity.  These are implicit in the laws and instructions that have already been given.  But one who masquerades as pious while trampling the letter and the spirit of the law behind closed doors — this is the one singled out for these curses.

From here we may explain the division of the tribes.  The division is itself calculated to avoid any logical distinctions.  It is too easy for us to generalize, to indulge in stereotyping based on family, community, or ideology.  With no way of differentiating between one group of Jews and another, we have no choice but to evaluate every Jew as an individual and to discover who he is before passing judgment upon him.  Even the tribe of Levi, charged with pronouncing the curses, does not receive a free pass when it comes to the presumption of virtue.

Finally, every Jew must account for himself and his own spiritual and moral integrity.  I may stand among those receiving the blessings, but I cannot hide from the True Judge who will see me for who I truly am.  I may find myself among those receiving the curses, but I am not free from accountability for my own actions. 

Even if I am blessed, I cannot turn away from those among my people who have fallen by the wayside.  Even if I am cursed, the road the repentance can always lead me back to take my place among the righteous.  We are all individuals, all unique, all responsible for ourselves and our own actions, in public and in private.  But we are also one people, responsible for one another.  Our common denominator is the divine soul within each of us which, together with the Torah that guides us, will bring us home when we lose our way on the path of the cursed and steer us back to the path of eternal blessing.

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