The Difference Between the Mountains

Eileh ya’amdu l’varech es ha’am al Har Gerizim (Devarim 27:12)

Moshe told the Jewish people that when they entered the Land of Israel, they should recommit themselves to mitzvah observance. In addition to writing the entire Torah on 12 large stones and bringing offerings, Moshe commanded them to ascend two large mountains in order to confirm their commitment and dedication to the Torah. Specifically, he said that the members of the tribes of Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Yissachar, Yosef and Binyamin should stand on Mount Gerizim for the delivering of the blessings, while the tribes of Reuven, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan, and Naftali should assemble on Mount Eival for the pronouncement and acceptance of the curses.

Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that while these two mountains are physically located in close proximity to one another, their appearances are vastly dissimilar. While Mount Gerizim is full of lush trees and grass, its neighbor Mount Eival is rocky and dry, a physical representation of the difference between blessing and curse. Still, it is difficult to understand how two mountains of approximately the same size and subject to the same climate patterns could turn out so differently, with one mountain producing extensive vegetation, while the other remains barren and desolate. Rav Hirsch posits that the variance in their outcomes is due not to the external factors to which they are subjected, which are indeed comparable, but rather to what each mountain contains within. Mount Gerizim possesses healthy soil which is capable of supporting growth, while Mount Eival does not.

Harav Nissan Kaplan of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim derives from this explanation the folly of a widespread line of thinking. We often convince ourselves that if we had grown up in a certain family, attended a specific elite yeshivah, and been born with additional talents and different life circumstances, we would have turned out as different — and better — people. Unfortunately, because we were placed into our families of origin and grew up and were educated in often suboptimal conditions, we reason that we had no choice but to become the people we did.

However, this line of thinking is fundamentally mistaken, as Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival teach us that what we become is dependent not on external circumstances, but on what we contain within us and what type of people we elect to become. If we choose to become the best Jews we can be no matter what environment we are given, we will blossom and sprout like Mount Gerizim; but if we choose not to work on ourselves and to justify our behavior based on our life situations, we will sadly remain barren like Mount Eival. The lesson of these two mountains is that the power to decide what type of life we wish to lead is fully in our control, irrespective of any external circumstances we may experience.

Q: The Mishnah in Pesachim (116a) rules that the core of the Haggadah shel Pesach consists of expounding upon the verses (Devarim 26:5–9) which pertain to our national history in the section recited by a person bringing bikurim (first fruits) to the Temple. The Mishnah teaches that one should begin from (26:5): “Arami oved avi — an Aramean attempted to destroy my father,” and continue discussing each verse until completing the entire section. Why do we expound upon the first four verses in this section but omit a discussion of the final verse, which gives praise to Hashem for bringing us to the Land of Israel and giving us the Beis Hamikdash?

Q: In mentioning (Devarim 29:4) that the shoes of the Jewish people miraculously didn’t wear out during their sojourn in the wilderness, the Torah states explicitly that they wore shoes during their travels through the desert. How can this be resolved with Rashi’s earlier comment (Devarim 8:4) that the feet of the Jews miraculously didn’t swell during their travels in the desert as is customary for those who walk barefoot??

A: Harav Moshe Shapiro suggests that in the times of the Beis Hamikdash, they indeed expounded upon this verse as part of the standard text of the Haggadah. However, our goal at the Seder is not to discuss historical events which occurred in the past, but rather to view the events of the Exodus as if they happened to us. As a result, we are unable to discuss the final verse in the section which focuses on the Temple since we have not merited its rebuilding. He suggests that this explanation is alluded to by the Rambam, who begins his recording of the text of the Haggadah by writing, “This is the version of the Haggadah which Jews are accustomed to say while in exile.”.

A: The Gur Aryeh answers that the Jews wore shoes in the wilderness. Rashi’s comment that their feet didn’t swell doesn’t mean they walked barefoot. It was precisely because they had shoes which didn’t wear out that their feet were protected and didn’t swell.

The Terumas HaDeshen and Divrei Dovid suggest that while the part of the shoe which surrounds the top of the foot remained intact, the soles of the shoes did wear out. Rashi explains (Devarim 8:4) that their clothing remained fresh because the Clouds of Glory laundered their garments. Although this process also protected the tops of their shoes, it was inappropriate for the Divine clouds to clean the filthy soles. Still, despite walking barefoot without protection for their soles, their feet didn’t swell.

The Rogatchover Gaon explains that after the sins of the golden calf and the spies, the Jews were legally considered in niduy — excommunication. Somebody who has been excommunicated must observe certain signs of mourning, including the removal of his shoes (Moed Kattan 15b). The earlier verse is addressed to the Jewish people, who were forced to wander without shoes during this period, and emphasizes the miracle that their bare feet didn’t swell during this time. Our verse is addressed to the Levites, who remained righteous and didn’t take part in these sins. They were allowed to wear shoes during their sojourn in the wilderness, and our verse refers to the miracle that their shoes didn’t wear out while wandering through the hot desert for so many years.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email