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Friday, January 22, 2010

NEW LAND, RENEWED COVENANT: Sotah 32 A-B

I the Lord am your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I the Lord am your God. (Leviticus 18:2-4)
Consider the challenge posed by this passage. The Israelites are told to enter the land but not to copy either the practices of the people among whom they have lived for centuries nor those of the people who will surround them in the new land. Do not take from the old place or the new place, they are told. It seems impossible. How can you not be influenced by the world and culture in which you live?

The Torah proposes that when the people of Israel enter the land of Israel they start from scratch, free from those outside influences. This is no easy task. If you erase everything to create a clean slate, what do you have to work with? The entry to the land, however, transforms everything. The people, fresh from Mt. Sinai, bring with them a new ethic and the land becomes transformed to meet them.

The moment when the people enter the land, then, is idyllic. The meeting of the renewed people with the renewed land. If I could translate that moment into a visual scene, I might end up with the one described by mishnah Sotah 7:5 (32 a-b, in purple below). It must have been a soul-shaking moment for every individual present.
When Israel crossed the Jordan and arrived before Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal in Samaria, near Shechem, beside the oak of Moreh, …. six tribes went up to the top of Mount Gerizim, and six tribes ascended to the top of Mount Ebal. The Kohanim and Levites and the ark of the covenant stood at the bottom, between the mountains.
According to Wikipedia, these two mountains are among the tallest in the land of Israel. Mt. Gerezim is on the south side of the valley, Mt. Ebal on the north, and Nablus sits in between. The people, after crossing through the divided waters of the Jordan River (Joshua 4), spread out through the valley – half to one side, half to the other. The sacred ark, with its caretakers, remains in the middle.

The Kohanim, who have conducted the holy service of the people since the Tabernacle was built, and who will continue in that role, serve as masters-of-ceremony. The Kohanim surround the ark, then the Levi’im circle them, and all Israel surround them, since it says, “And all Israel and their elders and officers and judges stood on this side of the ark and on that...” (Joshua 8:33).
It is a dramatic moment. How could you help but stay focused on the central point – the ark which led you through the desert, which divided the waters of the river for you, which will now usher you into the land?

This moment contrasts with Moses’ vision on Mt. Nebo before his death (Deuteronomy 34:1-4). God showed him the whole land, its width and breadth. Moses saw land and palm trees, desert and plain. The people, actually in the land, see only the Ark of the Covenant. Moses saw the promise of sacred geography; the people, by contrast, were presented with sacred life. The focus was not where they would live, but how.
They turned to face Mount Gerizim and began with the blessing: “Blessed is the man who does not make a graven or molten image.” And these and those answer, “Amen.”
They turned to face Mount Ebal and began with the curse: “Cursed is the man who makes a graven or molten image” (Deuteronomy 27:15). And these and those answer, “Amen.” [This procedure continued] until they completed the blessings and the curses.
I imagine their voices echoing through the valley – each side boasted several 100,000 voices. If I were the director I would have everyone chanting. The tune would be simple, just enough to maintain an on-going momentum as the list of blessings and curses bounced back and forth across the valley.

First one side speaks, and their words call forth a thundering, “Amen.” Then it repeats from the opposite side. The rhythm of the alternating voices, punctuated by the resounding, communal, “Amen,” would be heard by the ears and felt through the soles of the feet until it penetrated into the heart and soul of every person there – from the woodchopper and water carrier to the tribal chiefs and high priests. On that day the holy words were truly before your eyes and in your heart.

If you were present that day, you would remember it. It is reminiscent of Mt. Sinai when the Holy One of Creation presented the people with the Torah. But this generation who were now entering the land had not been privileged to experience that holy moment. This time the words were the words of God, but the voices were those of men and women and children. They actively gave voice to the covenant by which they would live.

It is an appropriate change. While they wandered in the desert they had been under Divine protection. They had eaten manna. Their clothes had not worn thin, their shoes held up, they lacked for nothing. God cared for them well. But once they cross the Jordan they bear human responsibility for human actions. The covenant now exists in their homes and businesses, in the fields, and along the roadways. The moment of entry into the land marks the transference of the covenant from Divine realms to human commerce.

As dramatic as this moment might be, it is only a moment. In due time this generation will pass away and the next generation will not have experienced this mini-Sinai. It is an eternal problem -- one generation’s experience is mere history to the next. Nonetheless their very existence on the land depended on keeping the covenant alive for generations to come. One final ceremony marked that day.
Afterward they brought stones and built an altar and plastered it with plaster and they wrote on it all the words of the Torah in seventy languages.
The twelve stones, one carried across the Jordan by each tribe (Joshua 4:2-3), represented the entire people. Every person could show his son and daughter that they were part of that whole. Their physical attachment to the covenant was visible and permanent. The words of the covenant were in all the known 70 languages of the world – universal translation assured that every person could understand what was expected of them.

I don’t know what happened to those stones. I wish they still stood to call us back to our roots. I would have liked someone to say to me, “Here is where your great-grandparents heard the words that have guided our family, and here is the stone our tribe contributed to make this foundation secure.” I wish I could offer such physical proof to my children, to my congregants, and to you. That evidence is gone. But we still have the story, and that will have to be enough.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser

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