Parshas Shoftim: The Enigma of the Forbidden Pillar

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Shoftim, the Torah warns us against foreign and idolatrous worship.  The pasuk says: וְלֹאתָקִים לְךָ מַצֵּבָה, אֲשֶׁר שָׂנֵא האֱלֹקִיךָAnd you shall not erect for yourself a pillar, which Hashem, your G-d, hates (Devarim 16:22).

Rashi teaches: 

ולא תקים לך מצבה. מַצֶּבֶת אֶבֶן אַחַת לְהַקְרִיב עָלֶיהָ אֲפִלּוּ לַשָּׁמַיִםand you shall not erect for yourself a pillar: A pillar of a single stone to bring offerings upon it, even for the sake of Heaven.  

אשר שנא. מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים וּמִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה צִוָּה לַעֲשׂוֹת, וְאֶת זוֹ שָׂנֵא, כִּי חֹק הָיְתָה לַכְּנַעֲנִיִּים, וְאַעַפִּ שֶׁהָיְתָה אֲהוּבָה לוֹ בִּימֵי הָאָבוֹת, עַכְשָׁיו שְׂנֵאָהּ מֵאַחַר שֶׁעֲשָׂאוּהָ אֵלּוּ חֹק לַעֲבוֹדָה זָרָהwhich [Hashem your G-d] hates – An altar of stones (plural) and an altar of earth He commanded to make, but this, He hates, for it was a custom for the Canaanites (they customarily used it for idolatry).  And even though it had been beloved by Him in the days of the Patriarchs, now, He hates it, since the Canaanites made it a custom for idolatry.  

In a Torah whose every word is eternally relevant, how can we understand this prohibition today, and what lessons can we derive for us in our day and age?  Clearly, none of us are making single-stone altars and pillars upon which to worship, and yet, even this seemingly antiquated command carries a message for us all.

We will offer two different approaches and answers, each which contains valuable pearls of wisdom as to how we must live our lives as Torah Jews.  

HaRav Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) zt’l teaches, “Since the giving of the Torah, each Jew is required to strive constantly to raise himself to ever higher levels of observance of Torah and mitzvos, both in quality and in quantity.  Even if one attains the age of seventy and had acted righteously with a full lifetime of good deeds behind him, that would surely outweigh any slackening and any misdeeds which might occur in his last years.  Nonetheless, he is not allowed to think that his share in the World to Come is assured for him on the strength of the merits previously accumulated…

“The truth is that even someone whose total merits far outweigh his sins cannot be considered a tzaddik unless he continues to do mitzvos until the end of his life, even though he may sin inadvertently at times.  If, however, he decides that he has already done enough mitzvos and has no need to do more, then all of his merits, however many they may be, count for naught.

“Thus the Torah prohibits a monolithic pillar because it suggests immutability, never accumulating further merits.  Before the Torah was given, a pillar could also be beloved to Hashem, since Jews were not obligated to do mitzvos and whatever they did do was counted to their credit!  However, since the giving of the Torah, we are obligated to do more than the minimum required by the Torah, to do as many mitzvos as we can and to strive to grow constantly.  Therefore, a pillar, which remains forever static, is hateful to Hashem” and hence, it is forbidden to us to construct and worship upon (Darash Moshe on the Torah, Artscroll Mesorah, p.304-305).  

וְלֹאתָקִים לְךָ מַצֵּבָה, אֲשֶׁר שָׂנֵא האֱלֹקִיךָAnd you shall not erect for yourself a pillar, which Hashem, your G-d, hates.  One who is unwilling, unmotivated and uninterested in further growth in the realm of avodas Hashem is akin to an unmoving matzayvah, a static pillar.  One who believes he is finished with the performance of mitzvos and accumulating merits for himself is akin to a static pillar, which is detestable before Hashem.  Man was put here to toil, to work, and to better himself through the service of G-d.  One who wants simply to ‘stand still,’ and not grow further is abhorrent to G-d and has forfeited his purpose in this world.  

We must be ever sure that we are striving for growth, moving forward, building upon past successes and learning from past errors. In this way, we will live lives full of meaning and closeness to Hashem.  

In his Growth Through Torah, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin offers an alternative interpretation.  He teaches, “Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Shapiro of Dinov (1783–1841, famously known as the Bnei Yissaschar) commented: ‘There are people who are rigid and inflexible.  They have certain habits and customs and are unwilling to deviate from them.  But this is a mistake.  This day is not similar to any previous day, and no two situations are exactly alike.  What is the right thing to do in any situation is dependent upon all the unique circumstances of that situation.  This can be understood from our verse.  Do not erect a way that is rigid or stubbornly unbending regardless of the situation (מַצֵּבָה means a pillar; but it is also the root of the word matzav, which means situation).  Rather, you should always take action according to the needs of that particular moment.  

“What could be a mitzvah in one situation may be considered a transgression in another situation.  At times a certain act may be a kiddush Hashem, and other times would constitute a chillul Hashem.  A person who does things compulsively without wisdom will make many mistakes.  Only someone who has a grasp of the full panoramic view of Torah principles, will have the necessary wisdom to judge what is the correct thing to do in every situation.  The more Torah you learn, the greater will be your ability to make distinctions between different situations” (Growth Through Torah, p.427).

From here we learn that though we must be unbending when it comes to asi’as ha’mitzvos and matters of halacha, one who is too rigid, like an inflexible pillar, who is unwilling to assess each unique situation through the lens of Torah, will commit grave errors in how he lives his life.  While we must always uphold the truth of Torah in this world, that truth may vary from time to time.  Only through da’as Torah can we know when to be rigid, and when to be bending, living b’shalom with fellow man.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום, 


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