Ki Tavo: Experiencing the great celebration

How exciting to discover that after more than 3,000 years, after Am Yisrael went through such a long exile, returned to its land and settled in it, we can touch that same altar that was built then?

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September 3, 2015 23:05
temple mount jerusalem

Jerusalem's Old City and the Temple Mount. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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In this week’s Torah portion, we hear Moshe Rabbeinu makes the following declaration to the nation: “Pay attention and listen, O Israel! This day, you have become a people to the Lord, your God. You shall therefore obey the Lord, your God, and fulfill His commandments and His statutes.” (Deuteronomy 27:9-10) What day is Moshe Rabbeinu talking about when he declares that on “this day” a covenant was made between the People of Israel and G-d? Commentators have expressed different opinions about this. The common interpretation is that it is the day on which Moshe Rabbeinu uttered these words. Based on this opinion, the covenant between Am Yisrael and G-d was created outside the borders of Eretz Yisrael.

But there is another interpretation which sees Moshe Rabbeinu’s words as referring to the future, after Am Yisrael enters Eretz Yisrael. This opinion was written by Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (Italian rabbi, philosopher and doctor of the 16th century). The Sforno claims that the covenant discussed here was actually created only after Am Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael.

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This opinion is supported by the order of the verses written in the Torah. At the beginning of the chapter, we read about the directives Moshe gives the nation on what to do after they enter the Land.

He instructs them to take large stones and write the Torah on them; and afterwards to establish an altar on Mount Ebal (next to the city of Shechem) and offer sacrifices on it. At this point, he says this main verse: “On this day you have become a people to the Lord your G-d,” and he reiterates the instructions on the order of the ceremony they are to have on Mount Ebal and the mountain across from it – Mount Gerizim. The significance is that the words “this day” are spoken about that same day when the nation will stand on two mountains in Samaria – Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim.

Why was the nation told to build an altar on Mount Ebal? We read in the Torah the following instruction: “... and you shall eat there, and you shall rejoice before the Lord, your G-d.” (Ibid, ibid, 7). Meaning, the fact that Am Yisrael became “a people to the Lord your G-d” necessitates a big and significant celebration by sacrificing sacrifices on the altar and eating the meat.

Indeed, in the book of Joshua, we find a description of the building of the altar: “Then Joshua built an altar to the Lord G-d of Israel on Mount Ebal. As Moses, the servant of the Lord, commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses... And they offered upon it burnt-offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace-offerings.”

(Joshua 8:30-31) Since the year 1870, researchers have looked for remnants of the altar on Mount Ebal. Four expeditions, two British and two French, searched for the altar on Mount Ebal, the last of which took place in 1922.



These four teams of researchers found nothing, which supported an array of strange theories regarding the validity of the biblical story.

But then in 1980, there was a surprising change in archeological research. Israeli archeologist Adam Zertal surveyed Mount Ebal and to his surprise, he found the altar in its entirety, buried under a layer of stone 40-cm. deep. Zertal excavated the site and cleaned it, and found a large altar, built according to the halachic Jewish laws detailed in the Torah and the Talmud, estimated based on professional examination to date back to the time Am Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael. Zertal wrote after surveying the analysis of findings at the site: “In light of this analysis, it would be difficult to continue doubting the similarity between the biblical story and the characteristics of the site as a first pan-tribal center for the tribes of the Israelites.” This discovery sparked a storm of debate among biblical researchers. Prof. Larry Stager of Harvard University stated about these findings: “If an olah altar [for burnt offerings] stood on Har Ebal, the influence on our research is revolutionary. We [biblical researchers] must all go back to kindergarten.”

How exciting to discover that after more than 3,000 years, after Am Yisrael went through such a long exile, returned to its land and settled in it, we can touch that same altar that was built then, when the Jewish nation entered the Land of Israel, and can try to experience that same celebration that took place there, celebrating the fact that we became a people to G-d.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.In this week’s Torah portion, we hear Moshe Rabbeinu makes the following declaration to the nation: “Pay attention and listen, O Israel! This day, you have become a people to the Lord, your God. You shall therefore obey the Lord, your God, and fulfill His commandments and His statutes.” (Deuteronomy 27:9-10) What day is Moshe Rabbeinu talking about when he declares that on “this day” a covenant was made between the People of Israel and G-d? Commentators have expressed different opinions about this. The common interpretation is that it is the day on which Moshe Rabbeinu uttered these words. Based on this opinion, the covenant between Am Yisrael and G-d was created outside the borders of Eretz Yisrael.

But there is another interpretation which sees Moshe Rabbeinu’s words as referring to the future, after Am Yisrael enters Eretz Yisrael. This opinion was written by Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (Italian rabbi, philosopher and doctor of the 16th century). The Sforno claims that the covenant discussed here was actually created only after Am Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael.

This opinion is supported by the order of the verses written in the Torah. At the beginning of the chapter, we read about the directives Moshe gives the nation on what to do after they enter the Land.

He instructs them to take large stones and write the Torah on them; and afterwards to establish an altar on Mount Ebal (next to the city of Shechem) and offer sacrifices on it. At this point, he says this main verse: “On this day you have become a people to the Lord your G-d,” and he reiterates the instructions on the order of the ceremony they are to have on Mount Ebal and the mountain across from it – Mount Gerizim. The significance is that the words “this day” are spoken about that same day when the nation will stand on two mountains in Samaria – Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim.

Why was the nation told to build an altar on Mount Ebal? We read in the Torah the following instruction: “... and you shall eat there, and you shall rejoice before the Lord, your G-d.” (Ibid, ibid, 7). Meaning, the fact that Am Yisrael became “a people to the Lord your G-d” necessitates a big and significant celebration by sacrificing sacrifices on the altar and eating the meat.

Indeed, in the book of Joshua, we find a description of the building of the altar: “Then Joshua built an altar to the Lord G-d of Israel on Mount Ebal. As Moses, the servant of the Lord, commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses... And they offered upon it burnt-offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace-offerings.”

(Joshua 8:30-31) Since the year 1870, researchers have looked for remnants of the altar on Mount Ebal. Four expeditions, two British and two French, searched for the altar on Mount Ebal, the last of which took place in 1922.

These four teams of researchers found nothing, which supported an array of strange theories regarding the validity of the biblical story.

But then in 1980, there was a surprising change in archeological research. Israeli archeologist Adam Zertal surveyed Mount Ebal and to his surprise, he found the altar in its entirety, buried under a layer of stone 40-cm. deep. Zertal excavated the site and cleaned it, and found a large altar, built according to the halachic Jewish laws detailed in the Torah and the Talmud, estimated based on professional examination to date back to the time Am Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael. Zertal wrote after surveying the analysis of findings at the site: “In light of this analysis, it would be difficult to continue doubting the similarity between the biblical story and the characteristics of the site as a first pan-tribal center for the tribes of the Israelites.” This discovery sparked a storm of debate among biblical researchers. Prof. Larry Stager of Harvard University stated about these findings: “If an olah altar [for burnt offerings] stood on Har Ebal, the influence on our research is revolutionary. We [biblical researchers] must all go back to kindergarten.”

How exciting to discover that after more than 3,000 years, after Am Yisrael went through such a long exile, returned to its land and settled in it, we can touch that same altar that was built then, when the Jewish nation entered the Land of Israel, and can try to experience that same celebration that took place there, celebrating the fact that we became a people to G-d.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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