In our Torah reading for this week Moses instructs the Israelites to set up stone pillars in the Land of Canaan after they cross the Jordan River. The stone pillars are to be coated with plaster, and the words of the Torah are to be written on them. They are also to set up an altar, made of uncut stone, upon which they will offer sacrifices in celebration of the covenant and gratitude upon their having reached the Promised Land. Later, in the Book of Joshua, the Israelites, under Joshua’s leadership, fulfill this commandment by setting up pillars and an altar on Mount Ebal.
Few material remains dated from the time of the Exodus have been uncovered. In the 1980s, Israeli archeologist Adam Zertel excavated a site on Mt. Ebal. He discovered a large altar made of unhewn stone dating to the time of Joshua. Charred animal bones were found at the site, along with Iron Age l pottery. Could this be the altar the Bible speaks about? This archeologist claimed that it was, indeed, the altar that Joshua built, but the issue has since continued to be hotly debated by researchers and scholars.
He did not find any stone pillars with writing on them. However, this is not surprising. There are two ways Joshua could have done this. The first is to cover large stones, cut to be smooth, with plaster and write the words of the Torah on the plaster with ink or paint. The other way would be to engrave the text through the plaster to the stone, so that the letters would show through the plaster from the darker stone. In the first case the letters would eventually be washed off by dew and by rain. In the second case the plaster itself would deteriorate as it became exposed to the elements over the years.
This account in the Torah about the stone pillars and altar commanded to Moses and erected by his successor, Joshua remind me of the story of the two friends, lets call them Reuven and Shimon, who were traveling together in the desert. At one point, they begin to argue. Then Reuven slaps Shimon. Shimon does nothing, but instead writes in the sand, “Today my best friend slapped me.”
Days passed and the friends continue their journey. They come to an oasis and decide to bathe in a spring. Shimon begins to drown, but Reuven throws himself in the water and rescues him. A grateful Shimon takes his knife and carves into a stone, “Today my best friend saved my life.”
Reuven is intrigued, so he asks Shimon, “Why did you write in the sand when I slapped you, but now when I rescued you, you carved it into stone?
Shimon answers with a smile, “When someone offends me, I try to write it in sand, where the marks are easily erased by the winds. When someone does something good for me, I prefer to leave it in stone so that I never forget the kindness and remember to be grateful.
G-d gives us the capacity for forgiveness as an antidote to the hatred and anger that can poison our lives. May we follow the example of Shimon, letting the winds of forgiveness gracefully wipe away the insults and injuries we have incurred. May we follow the example of Shimon and engrave in our hearts even the smallest act of kindness.