The Truth is Out There
The Torah commands that upon entry into Eretz Israel, the Jews were to take large stones and erect them on the eastern border. They were to inscribe the entire Torah on these stones, and according to the Mishnah (Sotah 7:5), it was translated into 70 different languages in order for the other nations approaching the borders of Israel to understand the text. Ostensibly, this was to post the “rules” for visitors entering the Land, so that any foreigner would know what was expected of them when visiting the Jewish homeland.
The Torah states that in addition to writing the Torah text on the stones, the stones needed to be coated with some kind of plaster or mortar, called “סיד” (or “שיד”) in Hebrew. There’s a debate in the Talmud (TB Sotah 35b) as to the relation between the writing and the plaster. Rabbi Yehuda says that the scribes chiseled the Hebrew text onto the bare stones and then plastered over the surface. Rabbi Shimon says that first the plaster was applied, and the scribes used a stylus to inscribe the text onto the soft plaster.
A message to the nations
At face value, Rabbi Shimon’s opinion makes eminently more sense. What would be the point of inscribing words onto stones that would then be covered by plaster? How would visitors to Eretz Israel gain access to the now hidden text?!
Rabbi Yehuda responds to this challenge: “HKB”H endowed the other nations with additional wisdom (Heb.: “בינה יתירה”) to know exactly what to do. When their scribes came to the border, they peeled off the plaster, transcribed the text underneath, and brought the text back to their respective countries.”
We are still left scratching our heads at Rabbi Yehuda’s Chelm-like depiction. Why conceal the Torah text, only to provide the visiting nations some miraculous knowledge to peel off the plaster? Why not display the Torah’s text out in the open? We might offer quite simply that R. Yehuda was concerned about the honor of the text, and did not feel that it would be appropriate for such holy scripture to be “out in the open,” subject to erosion and abuse.
But I believe that there’s a deeper explanation, in that this whole exercise was a learnable metaphor for the other nations of the world. To explain, let’s look at another passage of Talmud, the only other place in the Talmud (both Bavli and Yerushalmi) where someone is depicted as being endowed with this “בינה יתירה”, additional wisdom.
Women were created with “binah”
The Mishnah (Niddah 5:6) discusses the age at which a child has the status of an adult for particular laws. It states the well-known principle that a girl becomes “of age,” or Bat Mitzvah, when she reaches the age of 12. But a boy does not come of age until his Bar Mitzvah at age 13. Why, asks the Gemara (TB Niddah 45b), does it take a boy an extra year to come of age? Rav Chisda cites a verse from Eve’s creation (Gen. 2:22): “וַיִּבֶן יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהִים׀ אֶת־הַצֵּלָע” – “The Lord God ‘built’ (Heb.: “וַיִּבֶן”) the flank of man’s body into the woman, and brought her to Adam.”
In addition to the word “וַיִּבֶן” implying “building,” it is also a derivative of the word “בינה,” discernment and wisdom. Women were created with greater wisdom (“בינה יתירה”) than men, and this is why a girl matures faster than a boy, and is thus held responsible for her actions at a younger age.
Why did God create woman with a greater “binah”? The verse indicates that it has to do with her relationship to her male counterpart. Perhaps God was aware of the impending curse that would befall Eve, dooming women to be “subservient” societally and physically to their husbands (this has been the case for most of human history; thankfully, the social disparity between men and women has been reduced substantially in recent generations).
We have a principle in Judaism, “אין הקדוש ברוך הוא בא בטרוניא עם בריותיו.” – “God does not set up His creations for failure.” That is, if an individual being is created with some disability or disadvantage, Hashem will compensate for that disadvantage by endowing the individual with an enhancement that allows for success despite the handicap. For example, it has been scientifically demonstrated that people who are blind have enhanced abilities in their other senses.
It may be that Hashem, recognizing the disadvantages that women would have in dealing with their male counterparts, granted women an intellectual advantage, giving them a greater insight into the human condition, and infusing them with a certain intuition about life that men simply lack. From the very inception of woman’s creation, the imbalance was evident, and thus Hashem compensated for it accordingly. As Harry Belafonte sang, “That’s right, the woman is smarter,” and this is why girls become savvy a year before boys.
Universal message of the Torah
With this same principle, that God does not set up His creations for failure, Hashem wanted to symbolically show the other nations of the world that even though they were not at Mount Sinai, they were still not completely disadvantaged. The Law given at Sinai contains within it not only a specific message of behavior for the Jewish people, but also the universal messages of morality, ethics, and the imperative for man to look beyond himself in seeking a purpose for living.
Unfortunately, for reasons known to God, the other nations were not directly privy to this wonderful revelatory gift.
Hashem’s response to this handicap, to the nations visiting our borders, is this: Finding purpose in an existence that often seems chaotic and unfair is very difficult. You may suffer from the angst of not having the answers to so many questions about existence. If you had been granted the Torah directly, these questions might have been more easily answered. Realize, however, that the Torah’s message, while containing universal ideas, is still concealed with plaster, a “closed book” for the non-Jew.
So many aspects of the Torah are meant to be practiced and studied by Jews alone. I, God, nonetheless grant you an enhanced wisdom to know how to plumb the depths of this Jewish text, and bring it back to your own culture to provide answers for how to live a life of purpose and meaning. Don’t think that just because you weren’t at Mount Sinai, the Torah’s ideas are inaccessible to you. You’ve been endowed with a great sense of intuition, with a growling gnawing in your gut, and with an unrequited curiosity that will draw you to the borders of Eretz Israel. Don’t be satisfied until you have overturned every rock, and chipped away at the occlusive plaster that conceals the truth contained within the Jewish nation.
Universal access to Torah
There is so much concealment of truth in today’s world. The more we advance technologically, the more we have access to information. But that access has also been our curse, since so much information is completely unfiltered, haphazardly mixed with half truths and lies.
We believe, however, that as occlusive as our current society is, as much as it conceals the hidden nature of God and our reality, the truth can still be accessed by real truth-seekers who are prepared to chisel away at the facades of our modern society. Both Jew and non-Jew alike have this opportunity to arrive at the universal truths of the Torah.
Part of the responsibility of the Jewish people is to erect, metaphorically, those large stones on our borders and allow access, whether by lesson or by example, of the universal aspects – the ethics, morality, and kindness – of the Torah. The greater the confusion that is out in the streets, the greater the responsibility it becomes for those who possess the truth to share it.
King Solomon said (Pr. 25:2): “כְּבֹד אֱלֹהִים הַסְתֵּר דָּבָר וּכְבֹד מְלָכִים חֲקֹר דָּבָר” – “It is the glory of God to hide something, but it is the glory of kings to discover it.” That which Hashem conceals, He provides the opportunity for those worthy “kings” to discover. May we all merit to discover the truths of ourselves and our world and share it with others, so that we can finally envision the Redemption that is all around us, bb”a.