In this week’s Torah portion we are witness to a grand ritual - a dramatization depicting the landscape of choices within which we all reside, at all times. One half of the Israelite tribes are told to stand on Mt. Gerizim while the other half of the tribes are to stand on Mt. Ebal. Between the two mountains lies a valley – middle ground within which the tribe of Levi is to stand. From this middle ground of choice, the Levites call up to those on Mt. Ebal with a series of curses that will result from choices rooted in idolatry, dishonesty, greed and lust. The Levites then call up to those on Mt. Gerizim with a series of blessings that will result from choices to live a life of mitzvot, ethical behavior, honesty and support for the disenfranchised within the community. This is followed by a much more detailed set of curses/warnings that will result from choices to disregard these new laws.
In the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov (an eighteenth century mystic and the founder of Hasidism) on the Torah, as passed down through several generations of students and eventually recorded in a book called “Baal Shem Tov on the Torah,” he expounds on the warning in Deut. 28:66 which states, “The life you shall face will be precarious…” The Besht (an acronym for Baal Shem Tov) explains this instability as an ongoing condition of life and not as a one-time curse in the drama of our parasha. One can never remain in the same place, in relation to the Divine. We are always adjusting our closeness and our distance. The Besht gives the example of the hayot- the creatures in Ezekiel’s vision (Ez. 1:14) who dash to and fro, (ratzo v’shov) away from the Holy One and then back toward the Holy One. Motivated by love to draw closer and then by fear to retreat from the presence of the Divine, they demonstrate the ever-changing, unstable and precarious nature of our relationship with the Divine Mystery. This kind of ambivalence seems to be built into the cosmic structure itself and thereby built into us as well.
The Besht goes on to explain that in this world of flux, we cannot stay in one place. We must either move closer or further away. However, even when we move further away, we also cannot remain in this place, for no place is permanent. There are times therefore, when moving away actually facilitates coming closer again. Oftentimes, when we feel that sense of distance, of alienation from God or from other human beings, it is easy to judge ourselves and others. The Besht provides the very powerful teaching, that sometimes distance is a necessary precondition for moving closer. Sometimes we need to move down in order to move up. Fear causes us to move away, but it is a condition that is natural to all of us. It can serve as a sacred and meaningful force, if we recognize its presence and its root.
We are constantly in a state of flux. Our challenge is to cultivate the awareness required to recognize, whether we are being motivated by fear or by love, in every moment.
Fear causes us to constrict- to choke our breath- to dim our light, to move away, to perceive others as threatening and resources as scarce and limited. Fear fuels conflict and competition and impedes paths toward collaboration and peace. Love causes us to expand, to draw closer and to give someone the benefit of a doubt. In this expanded state one can experience the abundance (shefa) of God’s love flowing into this world and appreciate that there is more than enough for everyone.
Undoubtedly, we all vacillate between these poles of love and fear all the time. In this week’s Torah portion, the Levites- the tribe charged with sacred service- stand in the middle space, in the space of choice. While the other tribes represent the choices to move toward God or move away, the Levites stand in the space between, performing the sacred service of orchestrating the drama of choices. The Levites call out to us as a chorus of mindfulness. Will it be Love or Fear that fuels our choices, that animates our relationships?
While we may always fluctuate between these poles of fear and love, we can hopefully become more aware of our motivations in each situation. From the middle ground of mindful awareness, we can then make a conscious choice of how we want to respond. As we move into the High Holy Days, let us strive to be ever more mindful of our emotional motivations, to search within our deepest selves so that we can ultimately create the kind of lasting and meaningful changes we long for.