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Ki Tavo: The Mystery of Goodness

Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29: 8

Nearing the end of his farewell address to the Israelites, Moses describes a peculiar ceremony they are to perform after entering Canaan.

Two great mountains, separated by a giant valley, dominate the promised land. Six tribes of the twelve tribes are to stand atop Mount Grizim "to bless the people," while the other six will climb Mount Eval "to curse" them. On the slopes of the latter, the Israelites are also to build a monumental altar and sacrifice to the Lord, placing there great stones covered with plaster and inscribed with the laws. All this will serve as a permanent witness to the Israelite covenant with the Lord and the founding of a new nation with a divine constitution of its own.

Two things are odd here. The first has to do with the list of the twelve tribes. Elsewhere in the Torah, Levi, named like the other tribes after one of Jacob's twelve sons, is for the most part not counted, for, as the priestly tribe, it contributes no soldiers to the war effort and receives no inheritance in the promised land (instead, "the Lord is their inheritance"). Meanwhile, the tribe of Joseph is usually counted as two, one each for Joseph's sons Ephraim and Menashe. Yet here both Levi and Joseph are on the list, while Ephraim and Menashe are not.

The children of Israel, we understand, are being addressed not so much in their present military-political reality as in their more ancient incarnation as the heirs of the patriarchs. This ceremony, in other words, is ultimately more about Israel as the carrier of a moral message to humanity, a message of right and wrong, than about Israel as a specific political community in a specific land.

But the second and less easily explained oddity concerns the text of what exactly is to be pronounced on the mountains. "Cursed be the man who makes any carved or molten idol. . . . Cursed be he who dishonors his father or mother. . . . Cursed be he who removes his neighbor's landmark. . . ." And so on. After each curse, the people are instructed to say, "Amen." The list—of twelve seriously bad things a person can do—is fairly reasonable in itself, emphasizing the qualities that make us moral men and women by stigmatizing what we should shun. But where are the blessings?

Well, they're not listed at all. Either the text, for some reason, has left them out deliberately, or—still more baffling—they were to be left out of the actual ceremony as well. Either way, the omission is glaring.

The rabbis taught that the Torah's commandments are divisible between negative and positive ones—and that all are necessary for earning God's blessing. But this text seems to suggest the opposite: that in addressing the foundations of morality, it is more important to prevent badness than to foster goodness. On this reading, goodness is so obvious that it doesn't require positive and specific injunctions. If you want to earn God's blessing, just refrain from the items on the curse list.

But that doesn't seem right. We all know people who spend their lives avoiding violations of the moral law while still finding ways to be dastardly creeps. By contrast, we intuit that there's something about a good person that is unique, special and positive in itself and not just the negation or avoidance of evil. "You shall be holy," the Torah tells us explicitly, "for I, the Lord your God, am holy."

There is another possibility—namely, that, in its nature, goodness defies easy delineation in the form of rules or laws. While we can put our finger on the red lines that separate the unacceptable from the minimally acceptable, it's much harder to say in black and white terms what makes a person positively good. Instead of rules, we tend to think in terms of character traits: kindness, boldness, self-confidence, responsibility, creativity, humility, integrity, and a slew of other virtues, in a balance that defies codification and that varies from one individual to the next. And we think of acts:  of spontaneous kindness, of steadfast dedication to others, of inner harmony.

Our image of goodness, moreover, changes as we mature and build on our experiences, learning something about the real range of human possibility and the baffling complexities of real life. To understand goodness, we need exemplars and stories—stories like those that fill the Bible—rather than rules of thumb. Without them, general principles like "you shall be holy" become meaningless.

There is no mirror opposite to the list of ironclad laws associated with the curses of Mount Eval—not because goodness is easy to understand or self-explanatory but, on the contrary, because it can be as hard to navigate as anything else we encounter in our voyage through life.


David Hazony's first book, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, will be published by Scribner on September 7.


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