Monday, August 27, 2018

Stones, Reminders, Accepting the Torah, Connecting with God

Parshat Ki Tavo

by Rabbi Avi Billet

After Moshe’s very long speech (chapters 5-26) concludes, the last few chapters of the Torah consist of Moshe’s final messages to the people, including detailed instructions of their early days in the land of Canaan/Israel.

Of course, some of this was instructed back in chapter 11 verse 29 at the beginning of Parshat Re’eh when Moshe told the people that shortly after you enter the land you will end up at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival where the blessings and curses will take place.

Now, in chapter 27, Moshe’s instructions sound like this.
“On the day that you cross the Jordan to the land that God your Lord is giving you, you must erect large stones and plaster them with lime. When you then cross over, you shall write on them all the words of this Torah. In this manner you shall come to the land that God your Lord is giving you... When you cross the Jordan, you shall set up the stones that I am now describing to you on Mount Ebal… There you shall then build an altar to God your Lord. It shall be a stone altar, and you shall not lift up any iron to it… on this [altar] that you shall sacrifice burnt offerings. You shall also sacrifice peace offerings and eat there, rejoicing before God your Lord. On the stones, you shall write all the words of this Torah in a clear script.” (27:2-8, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan translation, Living Torah) 
When we turn to the book of Yehoshua, we find two narratives that include the use of stones. The first is in Chapter 4, when they cross the Jordan, and the second is in Chapter 8, after their defeat of the city of Ai.

In Yehoshua 4, the text describes two sets of stones – one taken by representatives of each tribe who each take a stone from the dried bottom of the river, “And these twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Yehoshua set up in Gilgal.” (4:20) The other set of twelve stones “Yehoshua set up… in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests who bore the Ark of the covenant stood…” (4:9) These stones were presumably covered by the water when it returned to its normal place and current.

In Yehoshua 8, after destroying Ai, the verse tells us:
“Then Yehoshua built an altar to the Lord God of Israel on Mount Eival. As Moshe, the servant of the Lord, commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moshe, an altar of whole stones, upon which no (man) has lifted up any iron. And they offered upon it burnt-offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace-offerings. And he wrote there upon the stones a copy of the law of Moshe, which he wrote in the presence of the children of Israel. 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 Lord, the stranger as well as the native born, half of them over against Mount Gerizim and half of them over against Mount Eival, as Moshe the servant of the Lord had commanded, to bless the people of Israel first. And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the book of the Torah. There was not a word of all that Moshe commanded, which Yehoshua did not read before all the congregation of Israel, with the women, and the little ones, and the strangers that walked among them.” (8:30-35) (Translation library) 
The idea that Yehoshua did not veer from the instructions of Moshe is certainly a powerful message of following a mesorah, a heritage, and maintaining a tradition. The only problem is that if we read the simple text, he was supposed to do this as the first thing he did after crossing the Jordan!

The easy answer is that it was impractical to do so, as the cities of Jericho and Ai stood in their way and they could not simply prance into the middle of the country without meeting some resistance.

However, the Tosefta in Sotah (8:6) says that is indeed what happened! They went straight from the Jordan to Mounts Gerizim and Eival, a distance of 60 “mil” and no one stood in their way!

On the other hand, there is the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael that the stones were set up right away, but the blessings and curses took place at a reunion 14 years later (Yerushalmi Sotah 7:3).

Both of these last views suggest that like the Torah, the book of Yehoshua is not necessarily recorded in chronological order of how things transpired. Perhaps the contradicting views of what actually happened serve to remind us that some instructions can only be fulfilled when the reality allows it to take place. The 14 years delay, for example, simply follows the reality that it took that long for the Israelites to completely conquer and settle the land. They could not move forward with blessings and curses until their mission was accomplished.

On a totally different plain, Yigal Ariel (“Oz Va’Anavah” on Yehoshua and Shoftim) notes the clear parallels that exist between the text of Yehoshua 8 and a different chapter in the Torah, Shmot 24. In both cases there is an altar built at the bottom of a mountain. Ariel compares the 12 monuments at the bottom of Sinai to the 12 stones taken out of the Jordan (in 4:8) – thereby connecting the two incidents of the stones in terms of their symbolism. He continues noting that in Shmot 24 and Yehoshua 8 the burnt offerings and peace offerings were brought. In both places, attention was paid to two halves: Moshe sprinkled half the blood on the people and half on the altar, while Yehoshua had half the people on one mountain and half on the other. Moshe read the book of the Covenant to the people, while Yehoshua wrote all of the Torah on the stones. In Moshe’s case the people cried out “We will do and we will listen,” while in Yehoshua’s case they absorbed the blessings and the curses. 

On the one hand, the fulfillment of Moshe’s instructions served as a lesson for the people in terms of how to follow rules and tradition. On the other hand, in a sense, it was a reenactment of the events at Sinai, shortly after the splitting of a waterway and the formal receiving of the Torah.

What are our lime-covered stones? How do we reconnect to that event? How do we feel the gravity of our connection to the Almighty? How do we see His mighty hand directing our lives? How do we find strength in the most special relationship we have with Him?

Selichot begin this Saturday night, and Rosh Hashana will follow 8 days later. If we are prepared, we should be blessed to know the answers to these questions.

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