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On the Rocks

By: Rav Ari Shames

In our parsha we read of the special mission that Am Yisrael has when they enter Eretz Yisrael - they are commanded to write the Torah on rocks in a "clear manner" (Be'er Heitave). 

Despite careful reading of the text, it is not at all obvious why Am Yisrael were meant to do this or exactly what needed to be done. We encounter a large number of commentaries on this issue that can be placed on a spectrum from the “maximalistic” to the “minimalistic” approach.  

The tension in the commentaries seems to be a function of the simple reading of the text, indicating that Am Yisrael were to inscribe the entirety of the Torah on the rocks, while, on the other hand, recognizing the realistic limitations imposed by the size of the rocks. I admit to not doing the math, but anyone who has sat through the rolling of the Sefer Torah on those occasions when it was found to be positioned on the wrong parsha can get a good idea of the vast amount of text contained in our holy Torah. How could all of that be fit on any number of rocks? 

The Ramban, in his second interpretation, is forced to suggest that the only reconciliation of these issues is to assume it was a miracle!! 

Most of the commentaries, while faced with this dilemma, limit the amount of text in one way or another, as we will see in a moment.  However, there is one position amongst the tanaaim that suggests a significant expansion of the text to be written. The Mishna in Sotah, quoted by Rashi on our parsha (making it the most famous explanation), states that the term "clear manner" (Be'er Heitave) is to be understood as “clearly explained in all languages (70)”. Whatever the exact size of our problem is, this position has just multiplied it by a factor of 70!  

It should be noted that not all opinions understand the term "clear manner" (Be'er Heitave) in the same way. The Ibn Ezra understood that it had to do with the style of writing and not the content. The Torah Temimah has an interesting reading where he explains that the term "lashon" can be understood to mean not a language but rather a manner of understanding the text. In other words, they were commanded to fully explain that which was to be written (I am not sure that this helps us in our "space problem"…). 

Of course, the explanation relating to the 70 languages, as understood by most, opens up an entirely new question. Who is the audience who are meant to read the rocks? The 70 languages are familiar to us from the 70 nations of the world, and if this be the case it is actually the gentile world that was supposed to visit and read the rocks.

The Gemara in Sotah takes this idea a few steps further. There is a contradiction in the pessukim as to whether the stones are to be written on or painted first. The Gemara asks if they are to be written on first and later painted how could one read the text? The Gemara responds, in what clearly needs additional study, that they (the Gentiles) would have experts who would be able to peel off the paint and read the text below, and if they would not do so they would be held responsible for being negligent!! Even if we leave aside the question of peeling the paint it is still not clear why we are presenting a display for nations of the world. 

Up until now we have seen the “maximilistic” approach - the entire Torah, at least, must be written and maybe even include interpretations and translation. On the other side of the spectrum are those commentaries which feel that a certain abbreviation of the text was inscribed on the rocks. Some write that it was only the Aseret Hadibrot; others feel that it was other basic fundamentals of Judaism; and others understand that it was a concise list of the 613 mitzvoth that were written (in a similar manner that we find such lists and poems that were composed by the Geonim and to be recited later on Shavuot or on other occasions). We even have one position in the Tanaaim that combines the universal approach with the abbreviated text approach. According to this opinion issues that involve the relations of the Jews and the non-Jews were written on the rocks. (This of course is very appealing in that it explains why we have focused on the Gentile readership. As we enter the Land of Israel we declare what our beliefs and principles are concerning those around us.) 

"The Whole Thing"

The common denominator of practically all of the opinions that we have discussed is the need to write the entire thing, the entire Torah, in either full or abbreviated form. This, of course, takes us back to the most basic level of the simple reading of the passukim. I think the major message may be just that - the whole thing.  

Parshat Ki Tavo is set in the final moments of the sojourn in the desert and after a forty year seminar on Torah Teachings. One could imagine sitting back in one’s tent, with the beautiful view of Eretz Yisrael on the horizon, musing over one’s notes of all of the important lessons that Moshe has taught over the past four decades. Some lessons one clearly identifies with, while other portions seem not to be the parts one most feels like fulfilling. It is not unreasonable for people to pick and choose those parts that they find most meaningful and incorporate them into their lives, while at the same time quietly ignoring the "problematic" ones. 

The message of our parsha is - it is a package deal. The Torah is not a bunch of nice ideas that form a smorgasbord to be sampled and tasted as one chooses. The Torah is a binding pact between God and Am Yisrael. This, I think, is the message behind the rocks and the theme that we find throughout many of the final parshiot of the Torah. From the start of Sefer Devarim the phrase "all of the Torah" is quite common, in many different forms. Even in our parsha, when we have a list of curses for various offenses, the list ends with a general statement "cursed be he who does not uphold the words of the Torah". 

As the Sefer ends, Moshe makes sure to write a single book - a full sefer Torah and hand it to the people. 

Our commitment to God and the Torah is to be one of full acceptance without regard to our leanings and feelings (naaseh v’nishma). That is the true Brit that we have.

Shabbat Shalom


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