Camped at the eastern bank of the Jordan River and poised to enter the land of Israel, Moses addressed the Jewish nation:

“It shall come to pass, on the the day that you cross the Jordan to the land that G‑d your Lord will give you, you shall set up great stones, plaster them in lime, and inscribe on them all the words of the Torah.”1

Moses predicted that when the people would enter the land and record stunning military triumphs against its inhabitants, they would would be inclined to erect lasting monuments to their military prowess as was the custom in ancient days. At such times, Moses exhorted them, it is proper to glorify G‑d rather than ourselves. He instructed them to record words of Torah on those monuments rather than tales of military might. Thus, they would channel their natural inclination for self-glory to the worship of G‑d.2

Several weeks later, when the people of Israel were crossing the Jordan under Joshua's leadership, Joshua did not permit them to reach the west bank of the Jordan before embarking on the monumental task of inscribing the Torah upon tablets of stone. They paused mid-crossing and completed the entire inscription, as the Jordan's waters were miraculously held at bay.3

Why was Joshua in such a rush? Furthermore, why did G‑d prolong the miracle of water separation when the project could have been accomplished with ease on the west bank?

Joshua sought to impart a message immediately upon entry to the land. Jews would not inherit this land on the strength of their military might. The only reason G‑d rejected the former inhabitants in favor of the Jews was the former inhabitants' lack of ethical behavior. They defiled the spirit of the land by violating the Torah's behavioral code.

The land of Israel is a sacred place and does not tolerate immoral behavior. It spews out inhabitants that defy the Torah's code of conduct.4 It was imperative that the Jews realize this as they entered the land even before they their first military engagement.

This was a covenant between G‑d and ourselves. If Jews observed the Torah they would enjoy the land. If they grew lax in their observance, the Jewish state would be destroyed. This is precisely what happened when Babylon and later Rome destroyed the temple and exiled the people. Joshua sought to delay, if not postpone, that eventuality.5

The Text

The nature of the text inscribed on the tablets is a matter of sagacious dispute. The Talmud taught that the entire biblical text was inscribed upon the tablets.6 Reb Saadiah Gaon7 taught that only the 613 commandments were inscribed. The Talmud held that it was inscribed in all seventy languages of the day, but at least one Midrashic source indicates that it was inscribed only in Hebrew.8

Why were the tablets translated into seventy languages? Israel's neighboring tribes9 argued that they were unfairly denied opportunity to embrace the Torah and with it, the right to live in the Holy Land. In response, the tablets10 publicly displayed the Torah's teachings in all languages for the benefit of anyone who chose to read them.11

A Coat of Lime

The Talmud records a further debate on the method by which the tablets were plastered. Rabbi Shimon held that the letters were inscribed over the plaster. Rabbi Yehudah held that the letters were inscribed into the stone and a coat of lime was plastered over them.

If the intention was to display the Torah's teachings to all mankind why were the letters, according to Rabbi Yehudah, concealed by a coat of lime?

Because the Torah cannot be mastered out of idle curiosity. Torah study must be fueled by an intense desire for closeness with G‑d. Forcing readers to chip away at the coat of lime before reading the text deterred the idle curious, but fortified the sincere seekers.12

Where Are These Stones today?

The stones were not designed to serve as permanent monuments. Our heritage is perpetuated by the power of our tradition, not by marble or granite monuments. Rather than erect monuments to our history, we prefer to live by our history.

We possess a tradition so powerful that it alone suffices to perpetuate the memory of those ancient days that molded our nation's character. Indeed, lifeless monuments are anathema to our people; our prophets and kings rarely, if ever, resorted to them.

The stones may have been lost to history, but their message has lived on. The message, far more than the granite, was the legacy Joshua hoped to leave us. And in that he succeeded.13