Chapter 27 of Deuteronomy describes various rituals to mark the future entrance of Israel into the promised land, including the plastering of stones and inscription of “these words of Torah” upon them. I imagine these stones as a type of national mezuzah marking the entrance to the land. Still, much about this mitzvah is unclear. For example, are these instruction stones meant to be placed at the Jordan River by Gilgal, as verse 2 implies, or at the altar to be built on Mt Ebal, as taught in v.4? Are the words to be inscribed on hewn stones, or on the rough unhewn stones of the altar, as implied by v.8? Unraveling these complications has been the labor of ancient interpreters (starting within the Bible, in the book of Joshua), of the rabbis and of modern scholars (see Jeffrey Tigay’s JPS Commentary on Deuteronomy, Excursus 25).
However, I am most interested in the last words of v.8, which say the words must be inscribed באר היטב, “most distinctly” (NJPS). Mishnah Sotah 7:13 claims that “they wrote upon the altar stones all the words of Torah in seventy languages.” It boggles the mind to read this as a literal claim—it would be hard enough to write a sentence on an uncut stone, much less the entire Torah in seventy languages. Leaving aside such logistical concerns, it remains fascinating to follow the rabbinic imagination that the first national project of Israel upon entering its promised land was to translate its wisdom into all of the languages of the world. Why?
In various collections of Midrash the rabbinic answer is given. Translating the Torah for all people to see was a legal notification. All of the nations could read the words for themselves, and therefore could not claim ignorance of its blessings and curses. The point was not to enlighten the nations, but to warn them and set them up for future punishment. Still, there is within the rabbinic mind a conflict between wanting to share the Torah with the world and to keep it as the sole possession of Israel. Indeed, in the centuries that followed the emergence of rabbinic literature, two major religions would appropriate for themselves much of the biblical mandate, leaving the Jews with a confusing range of emotions from pride to resentment and fear. In Midrash Tanhuma the rabbis have God designating Israel as the custodian of blessings for the world. The essential mission of Israel was to educate and bless others.
How about us? Do we understand our mission as being to educate and bless others? We modern Jews have been eager to translate our ideas into all of the modern languages and idioms of our day. The immediate reason, of course, is that most Jews lack access to our classical texts in their original languages. Yet our translations also may reach beyond the Jewish people. What are our intentions? In an ideal world, would all people read these texts and say, רַק עַם־חָכָם וְנָבוֹן הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה, “what a wise, discerning and great nation this is” (Deut. 4:6)? Or do we truly prefer that our religious discourse remain internal, a source of both edification and differentiation?
For two thousand years Jews have become accustomed to our minority status and to the limited reach of our ideas. After centuries of anti-Semitic oppression under cross and crescent, it was understandable that Israel became increasingly introverted. Gershom Scholem once said (more or less) that Zionism was the collective decision of the Jews to reenter history. At its best, the State of Israel does indeed create ideas, products and organizations that enlighten and benefit all of humanity. One can only begin to imagine what Israel would be capable of should it finally achieve peace with the neighbors.
As for diaspora Jewry, we are placed particularly well to share the ideas of Torah with the broader society. Conversion to Judaism can be one outcome for some, but we should also embrace the role of explaining our best ethical and spiritual ideas with other peoples so that we can build a better world together. This is part of what excites me about next week’s interfaith climate conference, and our liturgy of repentance (Selihot) which we will share next Saturday night. I invite you to join this and other opportunities to explain the Torah well beyond the boundaries of our own people, and also to listen and learn from the wisdom we may receive from other peoples of God.
דברים פרק כז, ח
(ח) וְכָתַבְתָּ עַל־הָאֲבָנִים אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת בַּאֵר הֵיטֵב:
משנה מסכת סוטה פרק ז
…ואחר כך הביאו את האבנים ובנו את המזבח וסדוהו בסיד וכתבו עליו את כל דברי התורה בשבעים לשון שנאמר (שם) באר היטב ונטלו את האבנים ובאו ולנו במקומן:
דברים פרק ד פסוק ו
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן אֵת כָּל־הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם־חָכָם וְנָבוֹן הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה:
מדרש תנחומא (בובר) פרשת לך לך סימן ה
[ה] ד”א ואעשך לגוי גדול. מהו גדולתן של בניך בתורה, שנאמר רק עם חכם ונבון וגו’ (שם שם /דברים ד’/ ו). ואברכך שאני בכבודי מברכך, ואגדלה שמך (בראשית יב ב), ששמך מתגדל בעולם, והיה ברכה, מהו והיה ברכה (שם שם /בראשית י”ב ב’/), ברכתך קודמת לברכתי, משהן אומרים מגן אברהם, ואחר כך אומרים מחיה המתים. ד”א והיה ברכה, א”ל הקדוש ברוך הוא משעה שבראתי עולמי ועד עכשיו הייתי זקוק לברך בריותי, שנאמר ויברך אותם אלהים (בראשית א כח), וברכתי לנח ולבניו, שנאמר ויברך אלהים את נח (שם /בראשית/ ט א), מכאן ואילך אתה עשוי על הברכה, שנאמר והיה ברכה,