Parshat Ki Tavo – פרשת כי תבוא

Parshat Ki Tavo – פרשת כי תבוא
Parshat Ki Tavo – פרשת כי תבוא September 24, 2016 – כ"א אלול תשע"ו   Torah for the World   Moses instructed the Israelites that immediately upon their crossing the Jordan River into the Land of Canaan they should build a stone altar and erect steles at Mount Ebal.  The stones were to be coated with plaster and display a sacred text.  “And on those stones you shall inscribe every word of this Teaching most distinctly (Deuteronomy 27:8).”  Steles were ubiquitous in the Ancient Near East.  Offering a Judaic interpretation of the Deuteronomy steles, Abarbanel viewed them as akin to a mezuzah for the Israelite nation in its homeland.   Scripture’s ambiguity about what precisely was to be written on the stones led the commentators to offer a wide range of explanations, from a maximalist (and possibly miraculous) approach to a minimalist one.  Ramban suggested that written on the stones was the entire Pentateuch, from Genesis 1:1 to Deuteronomy 34:12, as well as the orthographic crowns atop the letters.  In effect, the stones were to look like Torah scrolls.  Ramban conceded that to accommodate such a large body of text the stones had to be massive or the feat had to be accomplished by supernatural means.  Scripture records the fulfillment of Moses’ command.  “And there, on the stones, he inscribed a copy of the Teaching that Moses had written for the Israelites (Joshua 8:32).”  The Book of Joshua’s use of the term משה תורת משה led Metzudath David to posit that it was only the Book of Deuteronomy, known as משנה תורה, that Joshua inscribed on the stones.  Ibn Ezra, citing the opinion of Saadia Gaon, suggested that written on the stones was a compilation of commandments in the form of warnings.  Torah Temimah, noting the difficulty of chiseling a large body of text onto a limited surface area, suggested that only the Ten Commandments were inscribed.   The rabbinic tradition focuses on the final clause of Deuteronomy 27:8, באר היטב.  The plain meaning of the text, as understood by Robert Alter, is that the artisan chiseling the stones is exhorted to make the words easily legible.  The sages fancifully interpreted the verse to mean that on the stones were translations of the Torah into seventy languages (Mishnah Sotah 7:5, Pseudo-Jonathan).  Torah Temimah was loath to accept the rabbinic teaching at face value.  He suggested that לשונות need not mean foreign languages.  Rather, the stones offered seventy expositions or faces of Torah.  He noted that the Zohar similarly understood the requirement that members of the Sanhedrin be proficient in seventy languages to mean that each had the ability to offer manifold explanations of Torah (Zohar Vayikra 20a).   Baruch Ha-Levi Epstein, author of Torah Temimah, also wrote a work entitled Safah La-Le’emanim (1893), in which he offered a lengthy reinterpretation of the Aggadic claim that seventy languages were inscribed on the stones.  He posited that the stones were inscribed entirely in Hebrew with vernacular explanations of all the foreign loan words appearing in the Pentateuch.  For example, the Talmud claims that טוטפת is borrowed from African dialects (Menahot 34b). Epstein was moved to adopt this view not only because of a concern about sufficient writing space on the stones but also because of long-standing rabbinic hostility to the translation of the Bible and the loss of a Jewish monopoly on covenantal knowledge.  According to rabbinic legend, when the Septuagint was published the world went dark for five days (Soferim 1:7).  Just as in Deuteronomy 1:5 באר connotes a clarification of Mosaic Law, so too 27:8 connotes the removal of ambiguities, in this instance caused by Scripture’s occasional use of non-Hebraic terminology.  [Epstein loved the Hebrew language and was an admirer of the secular Zionists who revived Hebrew as a modern spoken tongue.]   However ingenious Epstein’s answer may be, it has won no real support.  It is clear from Talmudic sources that the appearance of seventy languages on the stones was not intended to clarify matters for the Israelites but to make knowledge of God’s Law available to the nations of the world.  Rabbis Judah and Simon debated whether the stones were first inscribed or, instead, first plastered.  Rabbi Judah asserted that lime was plastered on top of the wording that was previously chiseled directly into the stone.  His colleagues objected, noting that if the words were covered up it would be impossible for the heathens to learn the Mosaic Code.  Judah retorted that the wise men of the heathen nations peeled off the plaster coating and brought copies of the translated Torah back to their home countries. He noted that at that moment, when the heathens could no longer claim their impious behavior was due to ignorance or the lack of opportunity to discover God’s Law, they were condemned to an eternity in purgatory.  Simon, who asserted that the text was above the plaster, claimed that there was under the translation of the Pentateuch an exhortation that the heathens repent of their iniquitous ways and that if they did so they would be accepted by the Lord (Tosefta Sotah 8:6-7).   According to the sages, fairness dictated that God make knowledge of Divine Law available to the idolaters before He could hold them accountable for their transgressions.  Similarly, Rabbi Elazar noted that the Israelites were not punished for offenses against the Mosaic Code immediately after the Sinaitic Theophany.  Only after the Law was explicated at the Tent of Meeting did violations thereof become punishable.  The analogy is drawn to a Roman regulation promulgated by the authorities with a sealed copy sent by courier to the provinces.  Residents of the province cannot be held accountable until after the new legal missive has been unsealed and explained to them (Song of Songs Rabbah 2).   Stray passages in rabbinic literature imply that gentiles did learn from the steles.  David sent Joab to wage war against the neighboring states.  The Midrash claims that the Edomites and Moabites tried to dissuade the Israelites from attacking by citing Deuteronomy 2:5 and 2:9, which ban Israelite aggression against the sons of Esau and Lot, respectively.  David was unpersuaded to stay his hand, arguing that the other side had already instigated conflict (Genesis Rabbah 74:15).  The premise of the Midrash is that, unlike Balak, who was unaware of the restrictions on Israelite warmongering and needlessly feared for his nation’s survival, the later Moabites were indeed familiar with Torah law.  Whence did they learn the adversary’s code of conduct if not from the steles of Mount Ebal?   Solomon Schechter published a Geniza fragment from the Mekhilta Deuteronomy.  Commenting on 27:8, the Mekhilta states that only matters of international interest were inscribed on the stones at Mount Ebal.  The text cites Deuteronomy 20:10, the commandment to offer one’s opponent peace terms before commencing a military assault, and 20:19, the ban on destroying fruit-bearing trees for the purpose of manufacturing siegeworks.  The Midrash is asserting that the Israelites gave the world international law and the laws of war.   Jews are rightly proud of the contributions we have made to human civilization.  Arguably, our most important contributions are monotheism and the Hebrew Bible.  That half of the world’s population are adherents of Abrahamic faiths and recognize the sanctity of the Tanakh is dramatic evidence of the disproportionate influence our small people have had on mankind.  The rabbis of the early Talmudic period did not live in such a world.  Yet they too wanted to believe -- contrary to the dismissive attitudes of some Greco-Roman writers about Jewish insignificance [see my essay “The Jews through Gentile Eyes” dated 8/20/16] -- that Israel contributes to the moral development of the world.  Hence the rabbinic explanation that the steles were meant for heathens to learn right from wrong, especially in matters of warfare.  As the Tosefta notes, the nations might not internalize the lessons of Scripture and will accordingly pay the price.  But we can be proud in the knowledge that Israel served as God’s conduit to reveal to the nations enlightened modes of international conduct designed to bring humanity past barbarism and towards morality.