A series of inspirational messages on the weekly Torah portion by members of the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet
UJC Rabbinic Cabinet Chair: Rabbi Bennett F. Miller, D.Min.
Vice Chair: Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg
President: Rabbi Harold J. Berman
Director: Rabbi Eric M. Lankin, D.Min.
Mekor Chaim Editor: Lisa Kleinman
Coordinator: Rachel Ain
Parashat Ki Tavo
By Rabbi Lee Buckman
In 1868 a Prussian missionary discovered an inscribed pillar called the Mesha stele, named after the 9th century BCE Moabite king Mesha. This one-meter-high 35-line stele, found in modern-day Jordan, includes King Mesha's account of his victory over the Israelites: "I have triumphed over him [Omri, King of Israel] and over his house while Israel has perished forever."
Scholars believe that Mesha erected this monument to boast of his military conquests, a battle corroborated in II Kings Chapter 3. It is meant to assure that the king/hero's name is remembered.
Abravanel, the 15th century Spanish biblical commentator, contrasts steles like King Mesha's with those that Moses commanded the Israelites to erect in the Torah. Our parasha tells us, "Moses and the elders of Israel charged the people, saying.... As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Teaching" (Deuteronomy 27:1-3).
Abravanel wrote, "The concern was that when the Israelites cross into the Land of Canaan, they would respond as all military leaders do. Namely, they would naturally want to erect a monument that records the details of their mighty victory and boasts of their great accomplishments. This is what the Romans did whenever they conquered a land that was not theirs.... Moses, however, knows the natural inclination of victors and commands the Israelites to erect a monument to remind them of their sacred purpose."
Unlike the steles that paid tribute to the pagan conquerors that erected the monuments, Moses' stones were meant to praise the ultimate source of salvation, God. The monuments were to be a sign not of arrogance but of their worthiness in God's eyes.
Abravanel explains that the Israelite steles are like gigantic mezuzot at the entryway of the Land of Israel. They are the fulfillment of the Deuteronomic commandment "and you shall inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." These stone tablets would remind them that true heroism does not lie in building one's name and reputation but in building a society centered around the values of the Torah. The true hero is not the one known for conquering other nations but the human being who learns to conquer the self in the name of a higher purpose.
The inscribed pillars that the Israelites are commanded to erect make a public statement, not about a people's conquests but about their commitments: to learning, respect, generosity, service to others. They remind all that heroism is defined by moral courage. It lies in humility. It is found when we conquer the selfish inclination and build a life of service to our fellow human being and to God.
Rabbi Lee Buckman, a member of the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet, is Head of School of the Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit.