Parashat Ki Tavo – A Heart of Stone or a Stone that is a Heart
Living on Itamar in the Shomron mountain range we have the amazing privilege of being able to witness every day the mountains of the blessing and the curse Har Grizim and Har Aval. This week’s portion describes in detail the instructions regarding this event that took place when Joshua led the people of Israel into the land. (See Joshua chapter 8). This amazing event sometimes shadows over another very important occurrence that took place at the same time and place- the setting up of the altar on Mt. Aval and the writing of the Torah on the stones. (See Deuteronomy chapter 27). In this week’s essay I want to focus mainly on the writing of the Torah on the stones. I hope to shed light on some important questions. How and why was the Torah written on stones? Where did these stones come from? It is a known Jewish law that a Kosher Torah must be written on parchment from kosher animals with ink. Why then does Hashem command the nation to write the Torah on stones? (Before you continue this essay I recommend that you familiarize yourself with the verses that discuss this topic see Deuteronomy chapter 27 and Joshua chapters 4 and 8.)
When the Jewish people crossed over the Jordan and entered the land of Israel they were commanded to take stones out of the Jordan River and set them up as a monument in their encampment at Gilgal. These stones served as a memorial for generations to come to remember the miraculous event of crossing over the Jordan River. In addition, Joshua set up stones under the feet of the Cohanim that stood in the river as the nation crossed into the land. Moreover, on Mt Eval Joshua followed the instruction mentioned in our portion and wrote the entire Torah on stone and built an altar on Mt. Aval. Our tradition holds that the same stones that were taken out of the Jordan River were used for writing the Torah and the building of the altar of Joshua on Mt. Avel. These stones were later brought to the Israeli encampment at Gilgal and set up as the monument mentioned above. Writing the Torah on stone did not begin with Joshua. Let us remember that the Ten Commandments were written in stone. In addition, something that is a lot less known, is Moshe Rabeynu wrote the Torah on stone in the land of Moav before he passed away. Our sages add that the entire Torah was written by Moshe not only in Hebrew but in the seventy languages of the Nations. Joshua similarly wrote the Torah on Mt. Aval in 70 languages.
In order to clarify these facts we must learn a small passage of Talmud in the tractate Sotah 35B. The Talmud brings down a discussion between two Rabbis – Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yehuda. The Rabbis discuss two different possibilities of understanding how the Torah was written on the stones. According to Rabbi Yehuda the Torah was written on the stones and then covered over with plaster. Rabbi Shimon asked Rabbi Yehuda “if this the case how did the nations learn the Torah?” Rabbi Yehudah answers – “G-D gave them the insight to call their professional scribes and were able to peel off the plaster and take the Torah with them. For this reason they were punished because they should have studied the Torah instead of transgressing it.” Rabbi Shimon, on the other hand, explains that the Torah was written on top of the plaster so that all the nations could see it clearly. On the bottom the huge stones containing the Torah the following verse was written again for emphasis – so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against Hashem your God. (Deuteronomy 20:18) This verse explains Israel’s moral and legitimate right to go to war against the seven nations. If the Nations do not accept Israel’s call for peace (see verse (ibid 20:11)) which includes taking upon themselves the moral code of Noach, Israel will go to battle. We see from here that if the nations would have repented they would have been allowed to stay in the land.
In other words, before Joshua began the wars against the 31 kings to capture the land of Israel the Torah was put on display before the nations. Hashem wanted the nations to be inspired by the light of the Torah and repent. For this same reason, as mentioned before Moshe while in Moav, before passing away, wrote the Torah in 70 languages. Moshe began the process of reaching out to the nations with the light of the Torah. Joshua was told to do the same thing on the other side of the Jordan on Mt. Aval. It is important to note that this is not the first time the nations had an opportunity to accept the Torah. On Mt. Sinai we learned that Hashem offered the Torah to every nation on earth but they refused to accept it. We see a clear Divine plan that the nations must eventually be rectified through Torah. According to Rabbi Yehuda in the Talmudic passage above, we see that although the Torah was displayed to the nations it still was covered up with plaster. A possible deep meaning of this is that the Torah was teaching us that to study and learn Torah one has to work hard and carefully peel away the different layers that are blocking us from seeing the truth. In addition it is teaches us that the Torah is extremely deep and one has to sweat over it in order to understand the depth of it. Rabbi Shimon that says that the Torah was written clearly – presents us another approach that one has to bring someone close to the Torah slowly first by teaching him the most simplest of things that are as clear as day. We see that in both instances the nations failed to repent and rectify themselves. The writing of the Torah on stone teaches us that the spiritual light of the Torah descending from the highest places above has the power to turn even the most inanimate of creation into life. The Hebrew word for stone is “Even” ((אבן which has the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet – “alphabet” – comes from Aleph Beit. The letter Nun has the numerical value of fifty. This represents the fifty gates of understanding the Torah that is communicated through the Aleph Beit. Stones are referred to as letters in our esoteric teachings. “Even” also stands for the relationship between parent and child. Aleph is the first letter of the word for mother and father in Hebrew and Beit Nun “Ben” is the child. This is reflected in Jacob taking stones and placing his head upon them before leaving the land of Israel. He came to a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head, and lay down in that place. (Genesis 28:11) Jacob before going to exile needed to charge his spiritual batteries by connecting with the stones of the land of Israel. With all that is contained in them.
In summery the event on Har Grizim and Aval included three fundamental threads coming together. The Torah, the land, and the people. Standing on the mountain of Aval united through the Torah the land symbolized the establishment of the long awaited kingdom of Israel. By twining these threads together they created a powerful rope that was meant to tug the nations out of the mud of idolatry. What did not succeed for a second time, we are promised will succeed in the end of days. As described by our prophets – “Now it will come about that in the end of days The mountain of the house of the Hashem will be established as the chief of the mountains, And will be raised above the hills; And all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Hashem, to the house of the God of Jacob; That He may teach us concerning His ways And that we may walk in His paths.” For the Torah will go forth from Zion and the word of the Hashem from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2)
“Thus says G-D of hosts, ‘In those days ten men from all the nations will grasp the garment of a Jew, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”
You will arise and have compassion on Zion; For it is time to be gracious to her, For the appointed time has come. For thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and favor its dust. (Psalms 102)