Religious Life

The Meaning of these Stones

The Meaning of these Stones
8th Day Pesach 5778
Rabbi Alexander Davis

Over this past year, I have been teaching local artists in the Minneapolis Jewish artist lab. Our theme this year is thresholds. The artists will produce a show at the Sabes gallery this summer that grows out of our learning.

A threshold is place of beginnings and of change.  It is a point of transition into something new and a letting go of something familiar. In the lab, we’ve explored the topic from a variety of angles.  Today, on this final day of Pesach, I’d like to share teaching about thresholds that I presented to my artists. It is a teaching that invites us consider the thresholds in our life, our own crossings from winter to spring (God willing), from slavery to freedom, from life to death to life.

The specific threshold under consideration is the boarder of Israel. At a later time, we will take up the issue of asylum seekers crossing Israel’s borders. For now, I am referring to the Israelites crossing into biblical Israel.

At the seder, we tell the story of the exodus, of the exit. This morning, I’d like to consider the story of the entrance. Not leaving Egypt but entering Israel. This was the theme of the haftara on the first day of the chag when we read from chapters 3 and 5 of the Book of Joshua. I can’t tell you why we skip chapter 4 but that’s exactly the part that interests me.

God said to Joshua, “Command the priests who carry the Ark of the Covenant as follows: When you reach the edge of the waters of the Jordan, stop in the Jordan. When the feet of the priests bearing the Ark come to rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan will stand in a single heap.” The priests who bore the Ark did as directed. They stood on dry land exactly in the middle of the Jordan, while all Israel crossed over on dry land, until the entire nation had finished crossing the Jordan.

Sound familiar? Yes, it is a parallel to kriat yam suf, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds that we read in yesterday’s Torah reading. Of course, anyone who has seen the Jordan River knows it is about as wide as Minnehaha Creek so it is not so impressive. But the midrash revels in the miracle and says that the waters stood in a wall 300 miles high.

The passage continues:

When the entire nation had finished crossing the Jordan, God said to Joshua, “Select twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, and instruct them as follows: Pick up twelve stones from the spot exactly in the middle of the Jordan, where the priests’ feet are standing; take them along with you and deposit them in the place where you will spend the night.” This shall serve as a symbol among you in time to come, when your children ask, ‘What is the meaning of these stones for you?’ And you shall tell your children, ‘The waters of the Jordan were cut off because of the Ark of the Covenant.’ And so these stones shall serve the people of Israel as a memorial for all time.”

The Israelites did as Joshua ordered. And as soon as the priests who bore the Ark came up out of the Jordan, and the feet of the priests stepped onto the dry ground, the waters of the Jordan resumed their course, flowing over its entire bed as before.

The people came up from the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and encamped at Gilgal

There, Joshua set up the twelve stones they had taken from the Jordan charging the Israelites as follows: “In time to come, when your children ask their fathers, ‘What is the meaning of those stones?’ tell your children: ‘Here the Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry land.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you crossed, just as the Lord your God did to the Sea of Reeds.

I am fascinated by these twelve stones that stood at the threshold to the Land. First of all, just in terms of archaeology, they have not been discovered. There is a sixth century mosaic of a map that makes reference to the stones. It shows a picture of a church containing twelve stones. Above the church is a Greek inscription that says, “Galgala, which is also the twelve stones.” But that is it when it comes to recovering them.

Beyond the archaeology, what interests me is not just the story about the stones but the story the stones tell. Obviously, the twelve stones symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. They also allude to a little noticed verse in Exodus (24:4): “Early in the morning, Moshe set up an altar at the foot of the mountain with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.”

On Mt Sinai, Moshe set up 12 stone pillars. Here, as the Israelites cross into Israel, they set up 12 stone pillars. In other words, a new generation whose parents and grandparents stood at Sinai but who themselves did not stand at the base of the mountain, now commit to the brit, the covenant. just when they are concluding their wandering and establishing themselves in the land. Appropriately, on these twelve stones, the words of the Torah were etched as we read in Deuteronomy: “God says to Moshe, when you cross the Jordan, set up large stones, coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this teaching” (27:2).

By erecting this stone monument, Joshua fulfilled the command first given to Moshe. There, it served, as the commentator Abarvanel writes, as a mezuzah for the land of Israel sanctifying the coming and going into and out of the Land.

When the Israelites set up this stone monument, they did so understanding that it would be a memorial for future generations. And they took advantage of its educational potential: “When your child asks what is the meaning of these stones, you shall say to them…”

Of course it sounds familiar. It is the very language of the Torah quoted by the Hagaddah concerning the four children: “When your child asks, what is the meaning of these rituals.”

When we read this passage carefully, we find that Joshua actually gives two answers to this question corresponding to two sets of twelve pillars, one in the Jordan and one in the town Gilgal.

“When your child asks, “What is the meaning of these stones?” You shall tell your children, they shall be a memorial for all time commemorating that the waters of the Jordan were cut when the Ark passed through the Jordan.”

:כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלוּן בְּנֵיכֶם מָחָר לֵאמֹר מָה הָאֲבָנִים הָאֵלֶּה לָכֶֽם: וַאֲמַרְתֶּם לָהֶם אֲשֶׁר נִכְרְתוּ מֵימֵי הַיַּרְדֵּן מִפְּנֵי אֲרוֹן בְּרִית־ ה’ בְּעָבְרוֹ בַּיַּרְדֵּן נִכְרְתוּ מֵי הַיַּרְדֵּן והָיוּ הָאֲבָנִים הָאֵלֶּה לְזִכָּרוֹן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד־עוֹלָֽם

Later, “When your child asks, “What is the meaning of these stones?” You shall say to them, “here, Israel traversed the Jordan on dry land.”

:יֹּאמֶר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁאָלוּן בְּנֵיכֶם מָחָר אֶת־אֲבוֹתָם לֵאמֹר מָה הָאֲבָנִים הָאֵֽלֶּה: וְהוֹדַעְתֶּם אֶת־בְּנֵיכֶם לֵאמֹר בַּיַּבָּשָׁה עָבַר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּֽה

In the first answer, the stones are a memorial to God’s intervention, to miracles such as the parting of the seas that accompanied the Israelites on their wandering. The second answer, speaks of Israel’s fortitude in traversing the desert and crossing the waters. In the words of Rav Michael Hattin of Yeshivat Har Etzion, “Taken together, there is a dual message to be communicated by the memorial of the twelve stones, and it addresses the unique spiritual patrimony of the people of Israel.  On the one hand, they must have steadfast and unshakable trust in God, a trust that is rooted to the earth, immovable in anticipation of God’s salvation.  At the same time, however, they must become the agents of their own deliverance by confidently ‘traversing the waters’ at their own initiative, demonstrating not only absolute faith in God but also initiative and effort as well.”

The theme of dependence and growing independence is a central part of the Passover story. It is at the heart of the journey from slavery to freedom. But today, as the hour of Yizkor approaches, we consider this question “What is the meaning of these stones…” in a different light

When it comes to memorial or headstones, I am frequently asked a number of questions.

What should be written?

Would you please proof the stone?

When do I do an unveiling?

These are important questions. But on Pesach at Yizkor when we collect and recall stories of our family and of our people, other questions come to mind. Imagine standing with your son or grandson, your daughter or granddaughter at the grave of a loved one. When your child asks, “What is the meaning of these stones” they are asking not just to decipher the stone. They are asking essential questions: What did this person mean to you? What lessons did they teach? What traditions did they hand down to you? What compassion did they stir in you? In other words, they are asking for a story. They are asking to hear about the fundamental values your loved one stood for, the beliefs they held, the faith they practiced, the challenges they overcame, the thresholds they crossed.

As I often explain at an unveiling, it is impossible to say everything about a person in a few words on a headstone. “Beloved father and grandfather.” “Loving wife and mother, sister, brother, friend” are only just a prompt. It is our responsibility to tell the stories these stones contain and not just to tell them but to live them.

What is the meaning of these stones? We answer best by upholding their values, safeguarding and honoring their traditions, by learning from their example how to traverse the deserts of our lives, how to cross barriers by letting go and how to begin again. All of this and more are the stories these stones tell.

“When your child asks, what is the meaning of these stones?” Unlike flowers which eventually fade, the small pebbles we place on graves are permanent. They too tell a story. Our rabbis teach that in ancient times, shepherds needed a way to keep track of their flock. So they counted the flock and put the corresponding number of pebbles in a satchel. When we place pebbles on a headstone, we are asking God to keep the souls bound up in God’s satchel of life vayitzror b’tzrur hachaim.

And this is our prayer (inspired by Rabbi David Wolpe): “In moments when we are faced with the fragility of life, remind us that there is permanence amidst the pain, that heartbreak fades and the stones and souls and stories endure inspiring us to reach new promised lands full determination and devotion, fortitude and faith. Thus will our loved ones be bound in the bond of life.