Ki Tavo: Making It Clear

September 1, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Moses commands the Israelites to paint orders from God on standing stones in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”).  They are supposed to erect the stones on Mount Eyval, beside the town of Shechem.

And it shall be when you cross over the Jordan, you shall erect these stones, as I command you this day, on Mount Eyval; and you shall paint them with limewash. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 27:4)

Fragments of 8th-century B.C.E. Bilam story on limewash at Deir Alla, Jordan

Fragments of 8th-century B.C.E. Bilam story on limewash at Deir Alla, Jordan

When limewash is painted on a surface in multiple layers, the coating hardens into a thin shell of white limestone, which could last for millennia in dry conditions. (See my post Ki Tavo: Writing in Stone.) Remnants of one ancient text painted in ink on a limewashed wall still survive after 29 centuries!

And you shall write on the stones all the words of this torah, be-eir thoroughly. (Deuteronomy 27:8)

torah (תוֹרָה) = teaching. (The word torah also refers to the first five books of the Bible, to the whole Hebrew Bible, and to any teaching of Jewish law or religion.)

be-eir (בְּאֵר) = (verb) explaining, making clear, making plain.  (The noun be-eir = well, watering place.)

A simple interpretation of this line is that the letters on the limewash must be plain and easy to read. But the Talmud (Sotah 36a) asserts that the teaching was made plain by being inscribed in 70 languages, so anyone who came by could read it.  The purpose of the stones, according to the Talmud, was to teach the laws of the Torah to the native Canaanites.  This would give them a chance to renounce their own gods and adopt the laws of Israel, and thus be spared from death at the hands of the Israelite invaders.

I like the Talmud’s attempt to find a safe path for Canaanites. But it is a stretch to imagine that all the different tribes inhabiting Canaan would immediately send scribes to read and copy the writing on the stones.

Mt. Gerezim (left) before deforestation, Mount Eyval (right)

Mt. Gerezim (left) before deforestation, Mount Eyval (right)

What other purpose is there for the limewashed stones?  In this week’s Torah portion, Moses gives orders for a ritual at the city of Shechem (now Nablus).  Just east of the old town of Shechem stand two hills with a narrow valley between them. Until modern times, Mount Gezerim to the south was wooded, and Mount Eyval to the north was barren. (See my earlier blog, Vayishlakh: Mr. Shoulders.)  Moses wants the standing stones erected on Mount Eyval.  Then his ritual calls for the men of half of the twelve tribes to stand on one mountain, and half on the other.

And Moses commanded the people on that day, saying:  These will stand for blessing the people upon Mount Gerizim, when you have crossed the Jordan: Simon and Levi and Judah and Issachar and Joseph and Benjamin .  And these will stand for the cursing on Mount Eyval: Reuben, Gad, and Asher, and Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. And the Levites shall sing out, and they shall say to all the men of Israel, in an uplifted voice… (Deuteronomy 27:11-14)

The Levites are to pronounce twelve curses, and at the end of each curse all the Israelites are to say “amen”. The curses are conditional; each one begins with the formula “Accursed is the one who…” and then states a prohibition in the Torah.  The prohibitions include making an idol, treating a parent with contempt, moving a boundary marker, leading the blind astray, doing injustice to the poor, three kinds of incest, lying with a beast, two kinds of murder, and failing to perform “the words of this torah”, i.e. the more complete text on the standing stones.

The Israelites are to confirm their acceptance of the torah by saying “amen”.

Although both of the twin hills are part of the ritual, Moses calls for stones with the written torah only on Mount Eyval—the same hill where half the tribes are to stand to represent the curses.  My guess is that Mount Eyval was chosen for both purposes because it was bare, while Mount Gerizim was wooded.  A bare hill implies infertile land, which would be a curse in Biblical times.  And on the bare summit of Eyval, the white stones would be visible from a distance.

They would also be clearly visible to the men of Israel standing on both hills and saying “amen”.  Rabbi David Kasher, in his blog at parshanut.com, points out that the Israelites would internalize their commitment to the laws of the Torah more deeply by looking at the giant stones. “Words and ideas, I guess, even though they are the essence of the Torah, are somewhat elusive.  We human beings relate to reality in physical space, because that’s where we experience ourselves existing.  So objects help us concretize ideas, to bring them into reality.”

Torah scroll, dressed

Torah scroll, dressed

A similar function is served by the Torah scroll in Jewish services today.  Reading the Torah portion out loud is the purpose of the ritual.  But the reader uses a particular chant to sing out the text, because a melody reaches deeper into the heart.  The reader chants not from a book, but from a Torah scroll, written by a scribe with a quill on parchment.  And we have rituals for taking the Torah scroll out of the ark, unwrapping and unrolling it, holding it up afterward for everyone to see the writing, then rolling, dressing, and returning it to its ark.  All of these rituals make the text itself more real, more important, and more holy to us.

And you shall write on the stones all the words of this torah, be-eir thoroughly. (Deuteronomy 27:8)

be-eir (בְּאֵר) = (verb) explaining, making clear, making plain.  (The noun be-eir = well, watering place.)

Yes, the writing on the standing stones must be clear and easy to read.  But the other meaning of the verb be-eir can also be applied to Moses’ directions.  The ritual of the Levites singing out twelve prohibitions from the Torah, while the men of Israel stand on top of the two hills saying “Amen”, clarifies the purpose of the writing on the stones.  The teachings must be taken as mandatory God-given instructions for behavior.  Anyone who does not follow them is cursed; his life will go badly.

In a way, the noun be-eir also applies to part of the Torah portion.  A deep teaching is like a well, a watering-place in the desert.  If you travel through life with no guidance, acting merely according to your intuitions and feelings in the moment, your life will go badly—as if you were cursed. Human beings need instructions, words of wisdom to hold onto.  But it is easy to forget a piece of torah when you need it.  How do you internalize a teaching?  How do you drink it in?

Saying the words out loud helps.  Chanting or singing them works even better.  Conducting a whole ritual around them impresses your subconscious with their importance.

Then when we come to a decision point, the words of the torah emerge from the depths of our minds.  We still have to figure out the best way to apply them to our current situation, but at least we have something to work with.

May we all internalize the best torah to guide our decisions in our own lives!

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2 Comments »

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  1. I am sooo looking forward to being present and with Presence to participate in this ritual in only a few days. May the rest of Elul be filled with reflections, returning, and great blasts of awakening.
    hasta pronto,
    Elisabeth

  2. ps, I meant of being with the Torah, not going to Shechem 🙂


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