Parashat Ki Tavo / A Text Writ Large, but Hidden

The sages were particularly apprehensive about the gentiles’ reaction to Deuteronomy 20, where God explicitly commands Israel to annihilate the nations inhabiting Canaan.

Throughout the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses is preparing the Israelites for the major change they will undergo upon entering the Promised Land. The transition from a nomadic life to one within the borders of a defined territory might lead them to distance themselves from God and to worship the local Canaanite gods. However, as stated in this week’s Torah reading, Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1 ־ 29:8), not only the Israelites will undergo a dramatic change: The text they have carried through the wilderness will also undergo a radical change.

God commands the Israelites, after they have crossed the Jordan and entered Canaan, to transfer the Torah from the vessel that has borne it up until now – the two tablets which God bestowed to Israel at Mount Sinai – to a new one: “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; that thou mayest go in unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of thy fathers, hath promised thee.

“And it shall be when ye are passed over the Jordan, that ye shall set up these stones, which I command you this day, in mount Ebal, and thou shalt plaster them with plaster ... And thou shalt write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly” (Deut. 27:2-8).

The sages identified the stone that Joshua erects at Gilgal as the monument referred to in Deuteronomy. The stone has a two-fold purpose: to remind the Israelites of the miracle of crossing the Jordan, and “that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty; that ye may fear the Lord your God for ever” (Joshua 4:24). The Talmud explains the words “very plainly”: “Afterward they [the Israelites] brought the stones, built the altar, covered it with plaster and wrote upon it the entire text of the Torah in 70 languages, as it is written, ‘very plainly’” (Talmud, Tractate Sota, 7:4).

According to this mishnah, the text of the Torah that must be copied in its entirety on the stones erected on the banks of the Jordan is addressed to the nations of the world. It is to be translated into all the world’s languages and thus it will be open – potentially – to any reader in the world. Although the Torah’s national and particularistic dimension will, of course, remain intact, the nations of the world are also meant to be exposed to its messages, especially those that are relevant to them. Thus, this “Rosetta Stone” will enable the nations of the world to fear God, just as Israel is commanded to do.

What will those nations say about the verses that single out Israel from all the other nations, and about the verses that refer specifically to them? The sages were particularly apprehensive about the gentiles’ reaction to the phrase in Deuteronomy where God explicitly commands Israel to annihilate the nations inhabiting Canaan: “… thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth, but thou shalt utterly destroy them … 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. 20:16-18).

“How did Israel write down the Torah? Rabbi Judah said: They wrote it down on stones, as it is written, ‘And thou shalt write upon the stones all the words of this law,’ and then they covered the text with plaster. Rabbi Simeon asked him: If we accept what you are saying, how then did the nations of the world study the Torah’s text? Rabbi Judah replied: God gave them extra wisdom. They sent their scribes, who peeled off the plaster and brought the text to their respective nations. They refrained from teaching Israel their abominations and thus were saved from death at the hands of the Israelites. Rabbi Simeon said: The Israelites wrote the Torah text on plaster and wrote below the text, ‘that they teach you not to do after all their abominations [which they have done unto their gods].’ We can thus understand that, if they repent, we will welcome them with open arms” (Talmud, Tractate Sota, p. 35b).

Although God granted Israel the Torah at Mount Sinai, Israel rewrites it – as a sort of reenactment of that momentous event – on entry into the Promised Land. According to Rabbi Judah, the Israelites inscribed the text on stones and then covered it with plaster. His interpretation causes Rabbi Simeon to ask: If the text were indeed covered with plaster, how then were the nations of the world able to read it?

Since the Israelites were apprehensive about the reaction of the gentiles to what is said in the Torah specifically about them, the Israelites covered the text with plaster, according to Rabbi Judah. However, he explains, God granted the gentiles extra wisdom and they therefore sent their representatives to see the stones. Those representatives peeled off the plaster, copied the text and brought it back to their respective nations. Rabbi Simeon disagrees, arguing that the Israelites wrote directly upon the plaster so that all the gentiles could read the text.

Rabbi Judah maintains that the text had to be hidden from the gentiles so that they would not learn that they would be punished by death for teaching idolatry to Israel, and so that they couldn't then avoid death at Israel’s hands by refraining from teaching idolatry.

Rabbi Simeon sees this text in an entirely different light: He claims that the words “that they teach you not to do after all their abominations” are repeated at the bottom of the Torah text inscribed on the stones. The intention, he argues, is not to enable the gentiles to evade their fate but, quite the contrary: to enable them to repent so that Israel can welcome them with open arms.

The very thought that the gentiles will read the text pertaining to them frightens the sages, who believe that time is not yet ripe for the Torah to be available to a new audience, and that what is thus needed is either a radical change in the text (i.e., its being plastered over) or else in reality (the gentiles dramatically changing their ways) – or perhaps both changes, at the same time.