From One, Many – Ki Tavo 5781

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

If there is an overarching theme to Aviyah Kirshner’s recent book The Grammar of God it is that the Hebrew language and Biblical syntax is rich in meaning. Those who are able to decode the original scriptural text are rewarded. An illustration of why this is true comes by way of an unusual locution in the book of Deuteronomy (27:1). God commands Moses and the elders of Israel to carefully observe “all the instruction” that God commands. In this verse, the Hebrew word for instruction is “mitzvah,” which raises the questions why use the singular form? The usual form in reference to God’s commandments is the plural and so, accordingly, the Hebrew should read “mitzvot.”


One way to resolve the question is to suggest that here the word “mitzvah” is not used in its typical way, namely, as a reference to a specific commandment. Rather, the word mitzvah ought to be understood more broadly as “teaching” (See Jeffrey Tigay, JPS Torah Commentary, p. 248). But this departure from the norm requires some explanation. Why would the Torah use a well-known word in in such an odd way? Besides, the Rabbis warn against taking any word or expression out of its ordinary sense.


One of the classical medieval exegetes, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra comes to the rescue. Ibn Ezra contends that the word “mitzvah” here is used in its usual way and it does indeed refer to a specific “mitzvah” (though Maimonides does not count it among the 248 positive commandments in the Torah). The specific mitzvah is what follows in verse 2: “You shall set up large stones.” The Israelites are commanded to coat these large stones with plaster and inscribe upon them all the commandments. It would serve as both a reminder and a permanent reference text for the Israelites about to enter Israel.


With this specific mitzvah, the Torah seems to surmise that sometimes people need to have a written public reminder of their responsibilities. And the larger and more impressive that reminder, the more likely it will be noticed. But beyond this observation, the Torah implies, at least according to ibn Ezra, that performing this one mitzvah will expose Israelites to all the others.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Rabbi Allen on Twitter