Posted on September 1, 2023 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
With this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we can feel a rising pitch of urgency. Moses is coming to the end of his life and is delivering his final words to the children of Israel. So invested is he in assuring the continuity of his people’s mission that he is leaving no stone unturned to equip them with tools to keep them on track. Having reminded them of their history, and having reviewed the commandments that comprise their covenant with God, he now gives them three rituals to perform when they enter and settle the Promised Land.
The third of these rituals is, in fact, the first one they are to perform upon their arrival, before each tribe goes forth to claim its portion of the land. Immediately upon crossing the Jordan River, they are to set up two large stones on Mt. Ebal, coat them with plaster, and inscribe on them the words of this teaching — this “Torah.” Then they are to build an altar, bring sacrificial offerings of wellbeing, and eat them. Next, the tribes are to divide into two groups, half of them to be stationed on Mt. Ebal, and the other half across the Jezreel Valley on Mt. Gerizim, to hear the Levites proclaim a litany of blessings and curses — blessings for obeying God’s commandments, and curses for failing to do so.
What I find most intriguing in this scene are the stones that were to be inscribed with the words of Torah. What exactly was to be written on them? Commentators offer a variety of opinions. Some say it was the entire Torah. Others suggest it was the text of the dramatic presentation of blessings and curses. Maybe it was the 10 Commandments. There is no clear answer, so we are left to wonder.
I imagine those stones to be the ancient equivalent of a modern-day billboard, which can only contain a modest amount of text if it is to be effective. So I wonder, if we were to erect such a monument in our day — if we were to commission a giant Torah billboard — what text would we choose to inscribe upon it?
For me, the options that come to mind are the powerful, pithy statements from the Torah, such as, “Love the stranger… for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…” (Exodus 23:9), or, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 18:20).
Such musings need not be mere speculation, because we are not the first Jews to reflect on this question. Our Sages of the Talmudic era considered it a kind of sport to distill the Torah down to its essential principles and, fortunately, they have left us their thoughts. One of the most famous of these comes from Rabbi Hillel, who was asked by a non-Jew to expound the whole Torah while standing on one foot. The question as Hillel heard it was, “What is the one principle upon which the entire Torah stands?” or, “What is the essence of the Torah’s teaching?” To which he responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.” (Talmud Shabbat 31a)
Another great text tells us how various prophets and Sages took the 613 commandments and distilled them down to a smaller number of core teachings. First, David reduced them to 11 principles, then Isaiah condensed them to six, Micah to three, Isaiah then further reduced them to two, and Habakkuk to one, namely, “The righteous shall live by their faith” (Talmud Makkot 24a).
Another text cuts right to the chase and presents an argument over the one single teaching that is the greatest principle of the Torah. “Rabbi Akiva said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ this is the greatest principle of the Torah.” To which Ben Azzai responds, “There is an even greater principle than that; namely, ‘When God created human beings, God made them in the divine image’” (Sifra Kedoshim 4:12). Like so many other disputes in our tradition, this one is ultimately left unresolved.
We don’t know exactly what was written on those stones on Mt. Ebal, and we don’t know which single principle reflects the essence of Torah. Of course, we can and should treasure all these teachings and consider ourselves blessed to have a heritage that is so abundantly rich and wise. But ultimately, maybe the wisdom we should take away from setting the words of Torah in stone is that these teachings are meant to be foundational, to be the bedrock of our lives, inscribed on the doorposts of our homes and our gates, and written upon our hearts.
Rabbi Arnie Gluck