Who Knows Two?
Shnayim Mi Yodeya
Shnayim mi yodeyah? - Who knows two?... The composer of this 500-year old Pesach song might have missed parshat Eikev. Our parsha includes a whopping fourteen references to the luchot. Eight of these references include a modifier such as “habrit” or “ha’avanim”. Specifically, luchot ha’avanim (tablets of stone) appears five times, beating out the thrice mentioned luchot habrit (tablets of the covenant). Luchot ha’avanim achieves further dominance when Moshe describes the tablets as “luchot ha’avanim, luchot habrit” twice in rapid succession. (See Devarim 9: 9-11.) Although I am not yet ready to modify Shnayim Mi Yodeya to include the reply Shnei luchot ha’avanim, Parshat Eikev begs the question: Why such an emphasis on stone? Wouldn’t one expect Moshe to describe the luchot by their lofty mission - tablets of the covenant - or at least by their sacred contents - tablets of the law? But tablets of stone – this is the most important thing about the luchot?! Exploring this question, I was reminded of a geology professor who gave me a lifelong gift. He opened my eyes to the wonders of curbstones. I never thought much of common granite curbstones, but the professor took us on a “field trip” down the block to become reacquainted with the various and sundry stones in our lives. In particular, he wanted us to take a deep look at granite and note the myriad minerals that lend it its rich, grainy hue. (Did you know you can sometimes spot flecks of brilliant purple amethyst in the grain?) From this professor, I learned to appreciate the astonishing richness of rocks, and this has everything to do with Moshe’s luchot ha’avanim. Just as geological studies reveal the complexity of stones and their heady processes of formation, likewise in Torah, avanim amount to far more than a bunch of stones. Consider one of the earliest celebrity stones in the Torah, Jacob’s pillow.
...וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃
And he took from among the stones of the place and he placed them beneath his head and he slept in that place. (Bereishit 28:11)
Although this verse suggests that Yaakov selected several stones, seven verses later, it seems clear that Yaakov had only one stone.
...וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֔יו וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֹתָ֖הּ מַצֵּבָ֑ה וַיִּצֹ֥ק שֶׁ֖מֶן עַל־רֹאשָֽׁהּ׃
...and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil upon it. (Bereishit 28:18)
This ambiguity is the root of the midrash regarding the stones quarreling about which would merit to serve Yaakov. Hashem resolved the conflict by fusing them into one stone. This story establishes the paradigm of the even (stone) consisting of many components. An echo of this concept appears in parshat Beshalach during the attack of Amalek.
וִידֵ֤י מֹשֶׁה֙ כְּבֵדִ֔ים וַיִּקְחוּ־אֶ֛בֶן וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ תַחְתָּ֖יו וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב עָלֶ֑יהָ...
And Moshe’s hands were heavy, and they took an even and they placed it beneath him and he sat upon it... (Shemot 17:12)
The commentaries note the unusual attention afforded Moshe’s even (stone) in this passage. What is the deeper meaning behind this special chair, especially if one believes the Torah is intended to convey information rich in meaning beyond the mere historic facts. What are we to learn from Moshe’s rock? The Malbim (19th c. Ukraine) suggests as follows:
ויקחו אבן, האבן מרמז על אחדות ישראל ואגודתם להיות עם אחד, כמו שרמזו ליעקב במה שהתאחדו אבני מראשותיו לאבן אחד...כמו שהאבן הוא דבוק חלקים רבים להיות עצם אחד, ר"ל שע"י אחדות העם תגן אמונת המאמינים וזכיתם על הבלתי מאמינים, וישימו תחתיו, רומז שכל ישראל התאחדו להכנע תחת משה.
And they took a stone – The stone hints at the unity of Israel and their assembly to form one people. This is like that which was hinted to Yaakov insofar as the stones united beneath his head into one stone...just like a rock is a conglomeration of many parts that become one solid mass. This is to say that by virtue of the people’s unity, the faith and merits of the believers shall defend against the non-believers. And they placed (the stone) beneath him – This suggests that all Israel united in obedience beneath Moshe. According to the Malbim, Moshe’s stone was an early Jewish representation of E Pluribus Unum. We who are descended from the victors of the Battle of Amalek must understand that unity is a crucial component of our redemption. United (with a little divine intervention) we stand! Returning to our parsha, what exactly are we to learn from Moshe’s emphasis on the luchot ha’avanim? Is this also some sort of metaphor for national unity? Not exactly. Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg (19th c. Germany) subscribes to the concept of stone expressing unity, but in the case of the luchot, it is an expression of the total unity of Torah.
כי מהות האבן הוא קיבוץ חלקי חול שהתאחדו בו להיות עצם אחד, ככה יסוד כל דבר שפרטיו כלולים ומתעצמים בו להתאחד עמו נקרא אבן. ולהיות שעשרת הדברים הם היסוד העיקרי לכל התרי״ג מצות, ...לכן קראם לוחות אבן כלומר לוחות שעליהם יסוד כל המצות,
The composition of stone is a conglomeration of bits of sand fused into one item. So too is the foundation of anything made of constituent parts that unite and strengthen the whole, this is called even. And the Ten Commandments are the essential foundation of all 613 mitzvot...Therefore (the tablets) are called luchot even, that is to say tablets upon which all mitzvot are founded.
Rav Mecklenberg deepens the metaphor. Not only is all Torah rooted in the luchot ha’avanim, but all modes of Torah study as well, including pshat, drash, remez and sod. Furthermore, the manner in which stones are formed over time, by means of heat and pressure, mimics the way we are to engage in Torah study. Acquiring Torah takes time and, sometimes, inferno-like intensity. Most importantly, if one struggles to understand a particular passage or concept, or if one finds aspects of faith to be particularly challenging, the luchot ha’avanim remind us that Torah is the sum of innumerable parts. If only we can step back and explore the topic from different texts or vantage points, perhaps in time the cumulative grains of wisdom will add up to an understanding that is more complex, more nuanced, and more complete. This is the true gift of the luchot ha’avanim. It is also a model for Jewish community. In the final moments of Yaakov’s life as he blesses his children, Yaakov describes his progeny as even Yisrael.* Like stone, we the people are the sum of many parts. Every human is a universe. All the more so, every family, social group, community, shul, and nation. We are the the sum of our parts, and therein lies our greatest strength. Permit me to share something you surely know, but it is worth reiterating: One of the greatest blessings the Darchei Noam community has to offer is the scale of membership participation. With the thoughtful involvement of our board, committees, and numerous additional righteous can-doers, we have all benefited from a spirit of engagement that has been a hallmark of our kehillah. This community has been an even, the rock of Yaakov’s blessing. We remain rock-solid by virtue of the many helping hands sustaining our davening, learning, social action initiatives, and community-building initiatives. At the risk of waxing poetic, like some sort of oddball urban Shir HaShirim, I would extol the virtues of Darchei Noam thus: You are as beautiful, wholesome, organic, and sturdy as an amethyst flecked granite curbstone! Long may you thrive and continue to derive strength from the breadth of involvement of all who cross your threshold, real and virtual. Shabbat shalom. *There is another interpretation of even Yisrael as referring to Hashem, as in the Rock of Israel. Note, Unkelus mentions an interesting link between the Hebrew even (stone) and the Arabic ibn (son of). Both words have the same spelling. His thoughts fit nicely with our understanding of even as consisting of smaller components.