Ki Tavo: Plaster on Twelve Stones

From its very founding, the State of Israel has been challenged to survive.  However, while it cannot be denied that the challenge has been, and continues to be, posed on the field of battle, the ultimate struggle has been, and continues to be, posed on the battlefield of purpose.  For, whether soldier or a civilian, it is only with a clear vision of national purpose that the individual in specific, and the people as whole, will succeed in this land.  Two of Israel’s Nobel prize winners, Aaron Ciechanover and Robert Aumann, made this point most emphatically when they said that the State of Israel would not survive without a convincing argument as to why the people of Israel should be in the land of Israel.

That argument, that vital answer as to why we are here, is what informs the covenant made with the Jewish people upon their first historic entry into the land.  This covenant – over the inheritance of the land – was a covenant to instill the nation with the purpose of being in the land.  Looking at the covenantal ceremony, initiated by Moses in the land of Moab and consummated by Joshua in the land of Israel, we find sacrifices offered in ritual acceptance of the covenant as well as blessings and curses pronounced in formal acceptance of its terms.  But of all the elements of the covenant and its attendant ceremony, perhaps the most telling is that of “the great stones”:

And it shall be on the day when ye shall pass over the Jordan unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, that thou shalt set thee up great stones, and plaster them with plaster. And thou shalt write upon them all the words of this law, when thou art passed over; so that thou mayest go in unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee … (Deuteronomy 27:2-3).

It turns out that these stones were invested with quite a history before being setup as Moses commanded.  In the book of Joshua we read:

And it came to pass, when all the nation were clean passed over the Jordan, that the Lord spoke unto Joshua, saying: ‘Take you twelve men out of the people, out of every tribe a man, and command ye them, saying: Take you hence out of the midst of the Jordan, out of the place where the priests’ feet stood, twelve stones made ready, and carry them over with you … (Joshua 4:1-3).

From the Jordan the stones were then brought to Mount Ebal where, explains the Mishna (Sotah 7:5), they were used to make the altar upon which the sacrifices of the covenant were brought.  Following the covenantal ceremony, the altar was dismantled and the twelve stones carried to Gigal, where they were assembled, plastered and upon which the Torah was written – in seventy languages.

It can be noted, then, that the twelve great stones traversed through three significant stations: the Jordan River, Mount Ebal, and Gilgal.  It is my contention that these three stations imbued the stones with monumental – threefold – import that inspired the people to their national purpose.  The import of these stones can do the same for Jewish people today.

The first station for the stones was the Jordan River, the significance of which was articulated explicitly by Joshua:

When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come, saying: What mean these stones? Then ye shall let your children know, saying: Israel came over this Jordan on dry land. For the Lord your God dried up the waters of Jordan from before you, until ye were passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which He dried up from before us, until we were passed over, that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty; that ye may fear the Lord your God for ever. (Joshua 4:21-24).

The stones, as such, are first and foremost a symbol of God – not as Creator of the heavens and the earth, but as the involved God of History.  For just as God revealed His hand at the Red Sea, redeeming the people from slavery, so too did He complete the process at the Jordan, bringing them into the land of their destiny.

The second station for the stones was the altar of the covenant on Mount Ebal upon which the people offered “olot” (burnt-offerings) and “shlamim” (peace-offerings).  Rabbi Joshua Berman explains that the olah, being completely given over to God “symbolizes our willingness to devote our entire existence to the service of God.”  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that “shlamim … are brought out of our feelings of the dependence of our fate on God, and their whole purpose being the consecration of our joy and happiness in the condition of our life” (Leviticus 7:18).  Having consummated the covenant of the land, the Jews have, as Moses promised, “become a people unto the Lord thy God” (Deut. 27:9); dedicated to His will and “shalem” (whole) with doing His will in the land.

The third and final station for the stones was as a permanent memorial in Gilgal, the nation’s first resting place in the land.  Here, the stones were plastered over to provide the surface upon which the Torah was written in seventy languages.  Rabbi Hirsch explains the symbol to be a manifestation of the fact that, “it is only the Torah that you have to thank for the Land; you receive the Land for the Torah, for its preservation and observation of its dictates” (Deut. 27:2).  The fact that the Torah was written in seventy languages – signifying all the nations of the world – adds another dimension to the symbol in that, not only is the Jewish people to observe the Torah but it is to make its wisdom available to all the nations of the world.

These three stations imbued the stones, it can be said, with the spirit of God, with the spirit of the Land, and with the spirit of the Torah.  As such, the twelve stones, assembled together as one pillar, represent the people of the twelve tribes united to fulfill the will of the purposive, involved, God of Israel in the land of Israel by observing the Torah and shining its light unto the nations.  This is the vision that inspired the people then; and this is the vision that must inspire the Jewish people today.

But there is one last element of the symbol that we have yet to explain – the plaster.  Given that this memorial is to be an everlasting one, inspiring the nation throughout the generations, we would expect it to be made in the most permanent way possible.  We would expect it to be made of solid stone, with words engraved deep into its hard surface to express the immutability of its laws.

Engraved stones, however, are self sufficient – they require no special attention and as such, they are prone to quickly becoming a relic of an ancient past.  Plaster, in contrast, will last no more than one generation without demanding renewal.  So too the Torah; for though its laws are immutable truths, its message, like the plaster it is written on, must be renewed, must be made relevant in every generation.

This, then, is the challenge of the plaster on twelve stones.

It is the challenge for our survival.



About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at
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