Parashah of the week: Shoftim

“You shall not set up a sacred post; any kind of pole beside the altar of your God that you may make. Or erect a monument; for such your God detests” Deuteronomy 16:21-22


The Torah issues a ban against constructing a monument, stating that this is something which the Almighty detests. Rashi, based on the Sifrei, explains that the difference between a monument, which the Torah forbids erecting, and an altar, which the Torah requires erecting and using for sacrifices, is that a monument consists of just a single stone, whereas an altar is made of many different stones. 

Numerous writers sought to uncover the meaning and significance underlying this prohibition, and to explain this distinction drawn by the Torah between a monument and an altar.

The Shem Mishmuel suggests an explanation based on a verse in the First Book of Kings describing the altar that the prophet Elijah constructed at Mount Carmel (18:31). Elijah used twelve stones for the altar and the verse states that this number was chosen to correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel. 

The Shem Mishmuel suggests that the stones of the altar represent the merging together of the different groups among the Jewish people, because no two stones are precisely alike, but they are all combined into a single entity dedicated to the service of God. The twelve stones of Elijah’s altar reveal the symbolic meaning of the altar’s stones — the notion of different groups and streams joining together in the devoted service of God.

On this basis, the Shem Mishmuel writes, we can understand why God detests a single stone monument but commands us to construct an altar. A monument signifies the individual’s service of God as an individual, as opposed to serving Him as one of a large group of distinct but unified stones. 

Serving God with a monument reflects the notion of serving God in isolation, separate and apart from the rest of the community, and on focusing exclusively on developing one’s own personal connection to the Almighty without joining with others.

We should strive to devote ourselves to God not simply as individuals but as members of a large nation consisting of many different groups, thus creating the most glorious symphony.

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