- Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
Kee Tavo 5780-2020: There are Stones with Human Hearts
- Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
- Aug 31, 2020
(updated and revised from Kee Tavo 5761-2001)
In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, Moses transmits to the Jewish people some of the specific laws and rituals that apply particularly in the land of Israel: bringing of the first fruits, tithing of the crops, and all that is necessary to prepare the nation to live as a sanctified people in the Land of Israel.
In order to impress upon the Jewish people that their commitment to Torah and Torah study is paramount, Moses, in Deuteronomy 27:1, commands the elders of Israel saying: שָׁמֹר אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם , Keep all the commandments which I command you this day.
Moses proceeds to inform the elders, that on the day that they cross the Jordan to enter the land of Israel, the people must set up 12 great stones, and cover them with plaster. Moses further instructs the people, Deuteronomy 27:3: וְכָתַבְתָּ עֲלֵיהֶן אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת בְּעָבְרֶךָ, and you shall write upon them all the words of this law when you pass in to the land. And, when the people reach the land, they are to set these stones on Mt. Abel, build an altar there and offer up sacrifices. Furthermore, says Moses, Deuteronomy 27:8: וְכָתַבְתָּ עַל הָאֲבָנִים, אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת בַּאֵר הֵיטֵב, and you shall write upon the stones all the words of this law, explain them very well.
In the Book of Joshua, 8:30-32, we learn of the actual fulfillment of this command as the people enter the land.
The message of Deuteronomy 27 is very clear. The source of the security of the people of Israel is their commitment to Torah.
Throughout the ages and the many years of exile, the Jews have survived only because they took their Torah with them. That, of course, explains why the Holy Ark, that was housed in the Tabernacle, was built with staves that were not removable, because Torah must be portable in order to accompany the Jews on all their journeys.
Throughout world history, we see that whenever a land was overrun by strangers, the original inhabitants quickly lost their own identity. Whenever a people was exiled, their unique characteristics soon vanished, and they ceased to be the people they were before. The original Egyptians, the original Chinese, the Babylonians, the Romans and Greeks, the Goths and the Visigoths–-all vanished. Only the Jews survived as the same, original people, and clearly the secret of their remarkable endurance was their commitment to Torah and the Torah lifestyle.
Parashat Kee Tavo contains one of the two portions of the Torah known as the Tochacha, G-d’s reproof of Israel for forsaking His Torah. Our rabbis say, that the ominous predictions found in the Tochacha refer to the destructions of the Temples and the numerous exiles and calamities that befell the Jewish people throughout the ages. There are even some descriptions in the portion that are graphically reminiscent of the recent Holocaust. Deuteronomy 28:53 predicts: וְאָכַלְתָּ פְרִי בִטְנְךָ, בְּשַׂר בָּנֶיךָ וּבְנֹתֶיךָ, and you will eat the fruit of your own body, the flesh of your sons and your daughters. The Torah clearly maintains that there is a direct causal relationship between the abandonment of Torah and the punishments that G-d visits upon His people.
I have often written and spoken concerning the proliferation of Holocaust memorials and museums that are found in virtually every major Jewish community in the world. Aside from the concern that these memorials convey a very negative message to our young people--that the essence of Jewish life is suffering, we see from parashat Kee Tavo, that the proper way of memorializing and commemorating Jewish suffering is not through building museums, but through writing the Torah on the stones—and fostering a passionate commitment to Torah.
Abarbanel, in his commentary to this verse, cites, almost prophetically, that the customs of the non-Jewish nations is to erect monuments to memorialize their conquests, victories, and heroes. The Jews, on the other hand are told to inscribe on stone the words of Torah.
Could our tradition be any more explicit in teaching us that the most appropriate Jewish memorial to those who suffered and perished is to erect stones, and write our Torah on them? Jewish tradition encourages us to build more houses of study, Batei Midrash and yeshivot. These are the most meaningful memorials to Jewish suffering. By nurturing and training a new generation of Jews who are committed to Judaism, who seek to understand the causes of the calamity, and who will remember why our brothers and sisters suffered and perished, that is the greatest and most appropriate memorial. Without that knowledge and commitment, the memories of those who suffered and died will indeed be very brief.
We’ve reached the absurd point where even our Jewish leaders who are thoroughly committed to Holocaust memorials, have lost the essence of what “memorial” means. I simply cannot forget the wedding announcement that was published in July 2001, on the society pages of the New York Times. A Jewish woman was wed to an Asian-American medical doctor, in a ceremony performed by a Federal Judge. The father of the Jewish woman, who hails from an illustrious Jewish family, served as the chairman of a well-known Holocaust Memorial in New York City. While for many of us the intermarriage itself is a tragedy, it seemed particularly callous for such a prominent Jewish leader to publicize his daughter’s intermarriage on the society pages of the Times. To add even greater insult to this injury, the wedding took place on Saturday evening, as Shabbat departed, and the observance of Tisha b’Av, the fast day which commemorates the destruction of our Temples and many other calamities, began. How short are our memories when they are not enriched by Torah and tradition. Clearly, unless Jews are connected to Torah and tradition, even prominent Jewish leaders who devote their lives to commemorate Jewish suffering, can be thoroughly indifferent to why Jews have suffered.
So in this month of Elul, let us gather our personal stones, cover them with plaster, and begin to write on them the words of Torah, so that these words will not only be etched on the stones, but, actually engraved on our hearts, enabling the lessons of Torah to shine forth to enrich our people and bring great light and clarity to the world.
May you be blessed.
In parashat Kee Tavo, Moses transmits to the Jewish people some of the specific laws and rituals that apply once the people enter the land of Israel. He instructs the elders that, on the day they cross the Jordan to enter into Israel, the people must set up 12 great stones, cover them with plaster and write upon them all the words of this law. Tradition thus explicitly teaches us that Jewish memorials must incorporate Torah. The most appropriate memorials are houses of study and yeshivot that nurture a new generation of Jews. Only in this manner, will our enemies never be able to defeat us.