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Dreaming of Better Borders

In the West Bank, near Nablus, one finds Mount Ebal, one of the tallest peaks in the area. From its 3000-foot peak one can almost see the entire land of Israel: Mount Hermon in the North, the hills surrounding Jerusalem in the South, the Jordan to the East and the Mediterranean Sea to the West. The city of Shechem sits below and serves as a reminder of Abraham and Sarah’s first journey to the promised land.

After Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land, the people constructed an altar on Mount Ebal. In the 1980’s archaeologists uncovered what some believe to be the altar’s remains and evidence of the Torah’s command and the Book of Joshua’s report: “At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal...  an altar of unhewn stone upon which no iron had been wielded.” (Joshua 8) Sadly, the Palestinian Authority apparently used some of these ancient stones for the construction of new roads.

This past Spring, archaeologists announced they had dated a small piece of stone found on Mount Ebal, inscribed with God’s name written in proto-Semitic to the eleventh century BCE. This discovery provides archaeological evidence that the Israelites were literate when they entered the land and that our ancestors have been present in the land of Israel for over 3000 years.

Archaeologists have not, however, uncovered evidence that the Israelites observed another of the Bible’s instructions. The Torah commands: “Upon crossing the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about which I charge you this day, on Mount Ebal, and coat them with plaster…. And on those stones, you shall inscribe every word of this Torah most distinctly.” (Deuteronomy 27)

There is debate if the word “Torah” refers to all five books. The rabbis suggest it does. Biblical scholars believe this seems unlikely and theorize these stones included select chapters from the Book of Deuteronomy. The Hebrew word “Torah” can be translated as “Teaching” and so the phrase is open for interpretation. Regardless, even if it ten chapters were inscribed, there must have been a lot of stones.

It is wonderfully revealing to think about the implications of the Torah’s command. Imagine a nation marking its borders not with a fence, or signs emblazoned with the words “Keep out” but instead commandments about caring for others. Immediately prior to the instructions to erect these stones with every word of this Torah is the commandment to set aside tithes to those less fortunate, in particular the stranger, the fatherless and the widow.

Imagine how extraordinary the world might be if border markers proclaimed, “Here we are expected to care for others” rather than “Keep your distance.” I know it is a utopian, and perhaps even messianic, dream but it also appears to be our Torah’s vision.

The rabbis push this understanding even further. They suggest the words “most distinctly” mean that the Torah’s verses emblazoned on these stones should be written in the world’s seventy languages. Despite the fact they were off in their count by a factor of one hundred, it is a remarkable teaching.

On the borders of the land of Israel, the markers should proclaim in every language, “Here we are obligated to care for those less fortunate than ourselves.” Is this meant as a message to the world or a reminder to ourselves?

And I am left wondering. Which reader is more important? Do our laws serve as beacons to the world or a call to our higher selves?

Why must this remain a messianic dream?

Let it be instead a call for dreamers of a better today.