“There are Stones with Human Hearts”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, Moshe transmits to the Jewish people some of the particular laws and rituals that apply specifically 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, Moshe commands the elders of Israel in Deuteronomy 27:1, saying: “Sha’mor et kol ha’mitzvah, ash’er ah’noh’chi m’tzah’veh et’chem ha’yom.” Keep all the commandments which I command you this day. He further instructs the elders that, on the day they cross the Jordan to enter the land of Israel, the people must set up 12 great stones, and cover them with plaster. Deuteronomy 27:3 reads: “V’cha’tav’tah a’lay’hen et kol div’rei ha’Torah ha’zot b’ov’reh’cha.” And you shall write upon them all the words of this law when you pass into the land. And when you reach the land, you shall set these stones on Mt. Abel, build an altar there and offer up sacrifices. Furthermore, says Moshe, Deuteronomy 27:8: “V’cha’tav’tah al ha’ah’vah’nim et kol div’rei ha’Torah ha’zot, bah’ayr hay’taiv.” 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.

We may deduce from Deuteronomy 27 that the source of the security of the Jewish people is their commitment to Torah. Throughout the ages and the exiles, the Jews have been able to survive only because they took their Torah with them. This, of course, explains why the Holy Ark 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 nation was overrun by strangers, the original nation quickly lost their own identity. Whenever a people was exiled, their unique characteristics vanished and they ceased to be the people they were before. The Egyptians, the Chinese dynasties, the Angles, the Saxons–all vanished. Only the Jews survived, and, clearly, the source of their ability to endure was their commitment to Torah and Torah learning.

Parashat Kee Tavo is 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 destruction of the Temples and the numerous exiles and calamities that befall the Jewish people throughout the ages. Some of the descriptions in the portion are graphically reminiscent of the recent Holocaust. Deuteronomy 28:53 reads: “V’achal’tah fri vit’nay’cham, uv’sar vah’neh’cha uv’noh’teh’cha,” And you shall 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 ill conceived proliferation of Holocaust memorials and museums that mark virtually every major 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 our parasha that the proper way of memorializing and commemorating Jewish suffering is not through building museums but through commitment to Torah. The Abarbanel (1437-1508 philosopher, statesman, leader of Spanish Jewry and commentator on the Bible), in his commentary to this verse, cites almost prophetically that the custom 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.

Can 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 perished, we make the greatest memorial. Without that knowledge and commitment, our memories will indeed be very brief.

To cite an example of how brief memory can be: Last month, an announcement of a marriage was published in the society page in the New York Times. A Jewish woman was wed to an Asian-American man at a ceremony performed by a Justice of the Peace. The father of the Jewish woman serves as the chairman of the New York Museum of Jewish Heritage, built as a “living” memorial to the Holocaust. 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 Tishah B’av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of our Temples and many other calamities. How short are our memories when they are not enriched by Torah. Clearly, unless Jews are connected to Torah, even prominent Jewish leaders who devote their lives to Jewish suffering can be totally indifferent to why Jews have suffered.

So in this month of Elul, let us begin to gather our stones, cover them with plaster, and begin to write the words of Torah, so that these words will not only be etched on the stones, but actually penetrate our hearts, enabling the lessons of Torah to shine forth to enrich our people and enlighten the world.

May you be blessed.