The Torah portion of Re'eh begins with an instruction for when the Jews enter the land of Israel:

“Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse… And it will be, when the L‑rd, your G‑d, will bring you to the land to which you come, to possess it, that you shall place the blessing upon Mount Gerizim, and the cursing upon Mount Ebal.”1

What’s going on here? What purpose does this mysterious ritual hold?

1. The Event is Described in the Book of Joshua

How was this ritual actually performed? Joshua elaborates:

“Six tribes were sent to each mountain. And all Israel, and their elders and officers and their judges, stood on this side of the Ark and on that side, before the priests the Levites, the bearers of the Ark of the covenant of the L—rd … half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the L-rd had commanded, to bless the people of Israel first. And afterward [Joshua] read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the book of the Torah.”2

2. The Priests Recited 12 Basic Moral Principles

In next week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shoftim, Moses repeats this command with a little more detail:

“When you cross the Jordan, the following shall stand upon Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And the following shall stand upon Mount Ebal for the curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naftali. The Levites shall speak up, saying to every individual of Israel, in a loud voice: Cursed be the man who makes any graven or molten image...”3

The Talmud explains that during the ceremony the priests surrounded the Holy Ark and the Levites surrounded them. The priests recited 12 moral principles in the positive and the negative: “Blessed be the man… Cursed be the man…” For each positive pronouncement, they faced Mount Gerizim and for the negative, Mount Ebel. After each one, the congregation responded “amen”. 4

3. The Mountains are Located Near Shechem

Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal stand opposite each other, in what would have been the heart of Israel at the time of the Israelites’ entry. The ancient city of Shechem lies in the valley between the two.

4. The Mountains Represented Good and Evil

According to tradition, Mount Gerizim was lush and fertile while Mount Ebal was rocky and barren, clearly portraying the ramifications of our choices: We may choose the good path, cleaving to G‑d and following in His ways, leading to a rich, fruitful life. Alternatively, we can embrace evil and negativity, which leads to an empty and barren life, devoid of all things good.

Read: The Kabbalah of Curses

5. Archaeologists Discovered a Site That May Be Joshua's Altar

Included in the more detailed instructions Moses later gave, the nation was commanded to erect an altar upon which to offer sacrifices.5 In 1987, after excavating the northern corner of Mt. Ebal, archaeologists believed they had located this altar when they discovered a large amount of kosher animal bones, (which would have been used in the sacrifices), together with stone and ash. Other scholars, however, disagreed, citing the location of this discovery as different from the one described in the book of Joshua.6

6. This Was a Momentous Event in Our History

Upon entering the Holy Land as a nation for the first time, the people gathered atop these two mountains to declare their allegiance to one G‑d. In a world where monotheism was very much a novelty, this event served as a profound declaration of their faith. Moreover, according to the Talmud7, this was the first time that the nation took collective spiritual responsibility for one another.

Read: The Translation of Evil

7. The Curses Are Not Really Curses

Our sages reassure us that “No evil descends from heaven.” Everything G‑d does is essentially good; there is simply “revealed good” and “concealed good.”

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi viewed the curses as blessings in disguise, rather than misfortunes that need to be overcome.8 When a blessing is bestowed from on-high, the heavenly court first gauges whether or not the recipient is worthy. In order to circumvent this process, G‑d conceals the most sublime blessings in the language of curses.9

Watch: The Blessing Within the Curse