For High Priests and Pagans Alike / Parashat Ki Tavo

Through the ceremony of writing its text on plaster-covered stones, a second granting of the Torah will take place. This time, the Torah will be written by the Elders of Israel and disseminated among all humanity.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses instructs the elders of Israel to hold a special ceremony the moment that the Children of Israel cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land: “And it shall be on the day when ye shall pass over the Jordan unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, that thou shalt set thee up great stones, and plaster them with plaster. And thou shalt write upon them all the words of this law, when thou art passed over” ‏(Deuteronomy 27:2-3‏). The Children of Israel must transfer the stones to Mount Ebal and use them to construct an altar to God. Moses concludes this commandment thus: “And thou shalt write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly” ‏(Deut. 27:8‏).

Various commentators have suggested different interpretations concerning the act of writing the Torah on the stones and the purpose of this act: Is the entire Torah to be inscribed thus − or just the Ten Commandments? Or perhaps the list of curses related to violation of the law that follow the above directive ‏(Deut. 27:15-26‏)? The content of the text that is to be written on the stones will help in identifying the purpose of its being written and shed light on whom this stone monument is intended for.

The mishnah describes the entire scene and casually presents a surprising position: “After that, they brought the stones, built the altar, covered them with plaster and wrote upon them all the words of this Torah in 70 languages − as it is written, ‘very plainly’” ‏(Mishnah, Tractate Sota, 7:3‏). The sages interpret the words “very plainly” as indicating that the Torah will be translated into 70 languages. According to this view, the written text will address not only the Children of Israel, but all of the peoples dwelling in the land the Israelites are entering.

Through the ceremony of writing its text on the plaster-covered stones, a second granting of the Torah will, in essence, take place ‏(the first one having been at Mount Sinai‏). However, this time, the text that is to appear will not be written by Moses and then given to the Children of Israel: Instead, the Torah will be written by the Elders of Israel and disseminated among all humanity.

According to this mishnah, the Torah has universal meaning and the Elders are obliged to translate and “print” it so that it can reach all possible intended readers. This unique opinion, voiced by the sages, is also echoed in a legend about God showing the Torah to all the world’s nations and suggesting that they accept it, and in the following midrash: “Rabbi Meir would say: How do we know that even a pagan who studies Torah is like the high priest? For it is written, ‘which if a man do, he shall live by them’ ‏(Leviticus 18:5‏). The verse does not mention the three groups that constitute the Children of Israel: the Kohanim ‏(priests‏), the Levites and Israel. Instead, it talks about a man. Thus, we can conclude, even a pagan who studies Torah is like the high priest” ‏(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, p. 59a‏).

The Torah is a universal text that is intended for anyone who obeys its commandments; it demands of both Israel and the gentiles that they abandon their evil ways and return to the path of righteousness. And yet, it must be admitted, the Torah as it is written before us seems to be intended for Israel, not the gentiles. In order to overcome this obstacle and to enable the Torah to be relevant even to those who do not know that it is also relevant for them, what is needed is more than a translation. What is needed is an intelligent form of
publicizing the text so that every person − Jew or gentile − can read it and be prevented from rejecting it out of hand.

How can the text be made to speak to those to whom it is not ostensibly addressed? Two Tannaim ‏(rabbinical scholars who lived in the early centuries of the Common Era, the period of the Talmud‏) debate this very question during an argument over the precise manner in which Moses’ above instructions are to be carried out: “Our rabbis have learned: ‘How did Israel write the Torah?’ Rabbi Judah says: On stones, as it is written, ‘And thou shalt write upon the stones all the words of this law ...’ ‏(Deut. 27:8‏). Afterward, the stones were covered over with plaster.

“Rabbi Simeon told him: If we follow your interpretation, how could the nations of the earth during that era learn Torah? Rabbi Judah replied: God gave them additional wisdom, and they sent their scribes who peeled off the plaster and copied down the Torah. That is why their verdict was sealed and they were sentenced to death, because they were supposed to study the Torah and failed to do so. Rabbi Simeon said: The Torah was written on plaster, and at the bottom of the stones was written the verse, ‘that they teach you not to do after all [their abominations, which they have done unto their gods, and so ye sin against the Lord your God]’ ‏(Deut. 20:18‏). It can thus be concluded that, had they [the gentiles] repented, they would have been accepted” ‏(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota, p. 35b‏).

Rabbi Judah is very precise in his reading of the words, “And thou shalt write upon the stones.” He interprets them as meaning that the Torah was actually inscribed on the stones, not on the plaster, and that the plaster was intended to cover up the words. If so, Rabbi Simeon asks him, how could the text be read? The scribes of the world’s nations, replies Rabbi Judah, were granted additional wisdom: They peeled off the plaster and copied down the Torah; that process also entailed acceptance of the responsibility of performing its commandments. However, those peoples read the Torah but did not learn from it − in other words, they did not apply what they read, nor did they perform the Torah’s commandments. For this reason, they had to be punished.

Rabbi Simeon proposes another explanation: He focuses closely on the sequence of actions described in the verse. First of all, the Children of Israel are commanded, “[thou shalt] plaster them with plaster,” and only afterward does the Torah say, “And thou shalt write.” In other words, argues Rabbi Simeon, the text was inscribed on the plaster. At the bottom of the stones, he adds, the Elders wrote the following verse, which explains why the gentiles had to be punished for not taking upon themselves obedience to the Torah’s laws: “that they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods, and so ye sin against the Lord your God” ‏(Deut. 20:18‏). In this verse, the Torah distinguishes between the gentiles’ identity and their evil practices. Rabbi Simeon deduces from the verse that “had they repented, they would have been accepted.” However, apparently, they did not do so or mend their ways.

Rabbi Simeon’s interpretation can be easily understood: The translation of the Torah’s text must be made public in an open manner − black on white. Following it, at the bottom, an official warning must be written: This text disqualifies deeds, not people, and in any case it is intended for both Israel and the gentiles. However, in a certain sense, Rabbi Judah’s interpretation is more interesting. He does not propose that words of clarification be added at the bottom of the text, on the stones, nor does he suggest that any particular relevant aspect of that text be emphasized. Instead, he proposes that the Torah text simply be hidden from view: Translated into 70 languages, it will remain covered up with plaster until someone who wants to read it will appear, peel off the plaster and copy down the words.

The reader’s motivation and the wisdom and intelligence imbued in him by God − these will enable that person to peel off the symbolic plaster from the text and to copy it. Only then will that reader be free to choose whether or not to obey the Torah’s commandments. According to Rabbi Judah, the key to the text’s ability to mediate on behalf of those who are not its self-understood recipients is to be found not in the contents of the text, but rather in the wisdom, not to say the curiosity, of the readers themselves.

The Code of Hammurabi, inscribed in stone (c. 1772 B.C.E.).