12 Great Stones
“It shall be on the day that you cross the Jordan to the land that Hashem, your God, gives you, you shall set up great stones and you shall coat them with plaster. ‘You shall inscribe on the stones all the words of this Torah, well clarified.’” (Devarim 27:1-8) In the Book of Joshua, chapter 4, we read that this command was fulfilled. What was the purpose of this activity?
The Talmud Sotah, 35b, brings a dispute how these stones were to be inscribed. “According to Rebbe Yehuda, they inscribed the Torah on these stones and then covered them with plaster. Rav Shimon asks Rebbe Yehuda, ‘If that is what was done, how could the other nations learn the Torah?’ He replied, ‘God endowed them with exceptional intelligence (their intellectual curiosity caused them to uncover the stones and copy the Torah); they sent scribes who peeled off the plaster and carried away a copy.’ Their verdict for destruction was sealed because it was their duty to learn, and they failed to do so.”
Rabbi Shimon then offers a different account. “First, the stones were plastered together; the Torah was inscribed on the plaster. Then, at the very bottom of the stones, they inscribed, ‘In order that they (the seven nations of Canaan) do not teach you to act according to all their abominations…’ Hence you learn that if they (members of the seven nations living outside of Israel) would repent, they would be accepted.” What is the issue between Rebbe Yehuda and Rav Shimon?
Whenever the Torah uses the expression, “well clarified,” as in the verse above, Rashi, following the Talmud’s explanation (Sotah 36a), comments “in 70 languages,” referring to the 70 original nations of the world. Earlier in Devarim 1:5 the Torah stated, “Moshe began to clarify this Torah.” Again, Rashi comments, “in 70 languages.” The implication is that Moshe wrote a translation of the Torah for each nation. In this way all mankind would have access to the proper way and philosophy of life.
However, how to convey to the other nations the necessity for engaging in an in-depth analysis of the inscribed words in order to attain a full and proper understanding of the Torah’s laws and teachings, is at issue in the dispute between Rebbe Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon. Jews, as the authentic and original recipients of the Torah, always knew that the Written Torah could never to be understood without recourse to the Oral Torah.
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, a scion of Torah in the late 1800’s was fond of saying, “the Written Torah is like notes to a full lecture.” To someone who heard the entire lecture, the short notes make sense. Without knowing the entire lecture, the short notes cannot be properly understood. The proper conclusion, then, is that there is much more to God’s written word than the simple surface meaning. Similarly, all of us understand there is more, a much deeper explanation, to the physical world God created, than the crude notions and understanding we get from our simple sensory perceptions. Since all nations were to learn the Torah, how would they be made aware that there was more to Torah than the surface understanding?
Covering the inscribed stones with plaster was to hint to the “enlightened leaders of the 70 nations” this very fact. It was then their responsibility to seek out the true Torah scholars who could fully explain the copy of the Written Torah they made. Failure to do so then is evident today as well. Both the Christian and Moslem religions accept that there is a Written Torah. Yet, neither has any real understanding of its content or meaning. Neither religion knows of the Oral Law and its invaluable necessity to having a true understanding the Written Torah.
According to Rav Shimon the entire Torah was visible to the naked eye but, however, with an important caveat engraved at the end. This concluding verse was a clear disclaimer not read the words on these stones (the Written Torah) and understand them with an untrained or distorted mind like the current inhabitants of Canaan. Their distorted thinking resulted in systems of life with the most abominable practices including torture, sexual perversions, and human sacrifice.
The worst human practice is idol worship in any of its forms and vicissitudes. It is furthest from the reality that there exists a non-physical Creator of the universe, Whose creations are endowed with His infinite wisdom. Both Rebbe Yehuda and Rav Shimon agree that to fully comprehend and put into practice the words inscribed on these great stones requires a commitment to the slow and persistent acquisition of knowledge. To accomplish that task, powerful human instincts and emotions must come under the guardianship and careful exercise of the rational mind.
No doubt, Torah too can become a means for the outlet of these same powerful instincts and emotions. How many Jewish people, for example, believe that a mezuzah is a good-luck charm to protect the household? How many fellow coreligionists have embraced the notion that interpreting the Torah is a free for all? This folly not only leads them to permit clearly stated prohibited actions but allows them to create new ones that are equally unacceptable. Only through access to the complete Torah, Oral and Written , setting aside our personal feelings how we want things to be and employing proper objective analysis, can the words of these twelve great stones be properly understood and put into practice.
As we approach the יומים נוראים, the Days of Awe, let us use this time to refocus our relationship with God. Let us resolve to first study the Torah thoroughly before coming to conclusions about its positions on issues. Let us practice the Torah with the proper mindset and act based on knowledge.
In His love for all mankind, God presented all of us access to His Torah (Written and Oral). He has provided every generation with true scholars authorized to teach the Torah’s authentic understanding to all who want to learn. Through internet, accessibility is literally at our fingertips. Take the opportunity to “go and learn.” The Torah is the manual by which every person can attain a truly fulfilling life.
In this merit may we all be worthy of God’s blessings in the coming New Year.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan