Ki Tavo – Etching the Torah in Stone

Parshat Ki Tavo – Etching the Torah in Stone

Rabbi Shay Nave is the Director of OTS’s Yachad Program for Jewish Identity

For the Jewish people to return to its land, they must undergo a process of interpreting and clarifying the Torah. This is the process that occurred during the first return to Zion, led by Joshua, the son of Nun.

The same happened during the second return to Zion, led by Ezra and Nehemiah, and, God willing, will recur during the third return to Zion, an event we are fortunate to have been a part of in our lifetimes.

In this week’s parasha, Moses commands the nation to do the following, as we read in Deuteronomy 27, verses 1-8:

Moses and the elders of Israel charged the people, saying… As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that Hashem your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Teaching… Upon crossing the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about which I charge you this day, on Mount Ebal, and coat them with plaster. And on those stones you shall inscribe every word of this Teaching most distinctly.

Sure enough, when Joshua enters the land, he acts precisely as instructed (Joshua 8 vs. 30-33):

At that time Joshua built an altar to Hashem, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal… And there, on the stones, he inscribed a copy of the Teaching that Moses had written for the Israelites.

Writing of the Torah “most distinctly” is a vital stage in the process. At times when the state of the Jewish people, and their lifestyles, quality of life, pace and values undergo such fundamental change, as they face new challenges and come across unfamiliar territory, a new, creative way of thinking about the Torah is in order. This is the most pressing and straightforward task of the Jewish sages: to clarify and interpret the Torah, bringing it closer to the times they live in and the language they speak.

About a millenium later, during the second Return to Zion, Ezra and Nehemiah did something very similar, as described in chapter 8, verses 4-8 of the Book of Nehemiah:

Ezra the scribe stood upon a wooden tower made for the purpose… Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; as he opened it, all the people stood up… and the Levites explained the Teaching to the people, while the people stood in their places. They read from the scroll of the Teaching of God clearly, with the application of wisdom; and they helped [the people] understand the reading.

The words “…they read from the scroll… clearly, with the application of wisdom, and they helped [the people] understand the reading” are an indication of reading the text, while applying their wisdom, education and insight – three concepts that embody a more expansive and novel way of studying the text. This must be done when the nation returns to Zion – it is vital if we wish to see the Torah persevere and remain relevant to our lives, our country, and our land.

When the sages of the Talmud read these verses, they placed Moses and Ezra on the same pedestal, as recounted in the words of our Talmudic sages, in Tractate Sanhedrin, page 21b of the Babylonian Talmud:

It is taught in a beraita: Rabbi Yosei says: Ezra was suitable, given his greatness, for the Torah to be given by him to the Jewish people, had Moses not come first [and received the Torah already].

  • With regard to Moses the verse states: “And Moses went up to God”, and with regard to Ezra the verse states: “This Ezra went up from Babylon… Just as the going up stated here, with regard to Moses, is for the Torah [which he received from God and transmitted to the Jewish people], so, too, the going up stated there, with regard to Ezra, is for the Torah [as he taught Torah to the Jewish people and was suitable to have originally merited to give it].
  • With regard to Moses the verse states: “And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances”, and with regard to Ezra the verse states: “For Ezra had set his heart to seek the Torah of the Lord his God and to do it and to teach in Israel statutes and ordinances”, and even though the Torah was not given literally by him, the script of the Torah was changed by him, as it is stated…”

This magnificent excerpt from the Talmud makes a comparison between Ezra and Moses, one that serves to highlight the differences between them. Both Ezra and Moses “went up”. They both taught the people of Israel laws and jurisprudence. Yet aside from those similarities, there is one tremendous difference between them. Moses “went up to Hashem”, while Ezra “went up from Babylon” – i.e. Ezra made aliyah, to the Land of Israel. Moses transmitted the laws and ordinances he was commanded to teach by Hashem, from heaven, while Ezra prepared his heart for teaching the children of Israel the laws and ordinances “from the world”, i.e. from his own heart.

These two monumental characters – Moses and Ezra – had roles to fulfill, and each of them took the initiative and assumed responsibility, as appropriate to each in his own time and setting, for ensuring the continuation of the covenant and establishing the presence of the Torah in the Land of Israel. One of them reached this point through prophetic power, while the other, through interpretive power. Yet both had focused their hearts on implementing the word of God in an Israelite reality that was constantly in flux.

We have merited, in our own generation, to witness the third Return to Zion. We live at a time of fast-paced changes, a time that pits Judaism against a world of shifting values and technology bordering on science fiction, compounded with the return of the Jewish people to its land after an exile that lasted two thousand years – a return to a reality in which the Jewish people now live in its land and have assumed responsbility for the economy, have raised an army and settled new towns and cities, and have created universities and museums, movie theaters and fine art. All of these changes present both a challenge and an opportunity – an opportunity to grow and modernize.

We pray for the Torah scholars of our generation to assume responsibility and bring about a renewal of the Torah, inspired by their encounter with a reality that is alive and kicking. We pray for the complete fulfillment of the third Return to Zion.

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