Pillars: Perspective, People and Priorities

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of Naaleh.com

Shira Smiles shiur 2023/5783

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

As the parsha name suggests, Parshat Shoftim is replete with laws governing all areas of society. Yet, immediately after the command to appoint proper judges, the Torah seems to digress and command against planting an asherah/idolatrous tree or erecting a matzevah/a pillar which Hashem hates.

First, writes Rashi, we remember that although stone pillars were used even by our Patriarchs, since receiving the Torah, the practice was prohibited even in worship to Hakodosh Boruch Hu in conjunction with a mizbeach/altar. As Ramban explains, although the alien nations also used altars in their pagan worship, the stone and the trees were the basic symbols of that worship. As an extension of this law, shuls do not have organs even though music itself was an important component of the Beit Hamikdosh service, organs representing the specific musical instrument in the worship of alien religions, adds Rabbi Munk.

In Torat Tzvi, Rabbi Kushelevsky explains what these two symbols represent. The asherah/tree represents external beauty versus inner emptiness, and therefore was planted outside their temples to lure in worshipers with their beauty, along with the imposing obelisk. The Torah here cautions judges, as well as each of us individually, not to adapt alien practices simply because alien society values them. Nevertheless, when we are placing a matzevah on a grave, we are using it as a marker and testament to the life of the deceased, asking that soul to pray for us. We are not praying to the deceased as a god. [And our placing stones on that monument is our dedication to continue building on his work and legacy through our own lives. CKS]

Along these lines, Rabbi Hirsch explains that a single slab of stone is God's creation, while an altar of individual stones is built by man in obedience to God, dedicating his life and his actions to Hashem's service. Before Hashem gave us the Torah, the way to serve Hashem was through recognizing His rule over creation. However, after matan Torah, only recognizing His sovereignty was not enough. Now it would require our human actions to validate our belief in His sovereignty over us.

The month of Elul is a time to come closer to God. We ask Hashem to help us with so many of our worries and challenges. But that is self serving, not God serving, writes Rabbi Rabinowitz in Tiv Hamoadim. To this end, we make many resolutions, usually soon broken, for we are interested in the physical aspects of our lives. To build a strong relationship with Hashem, we need to be bent over, like the shofar, in His service. Perhaps find one line in the tefillah that speaks to you emotionally, and use that as the focal point of your avodah, perhaps singing a song, or finding joy in reciting the blessing over the food you are about to eat. As Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, the Berdichaver Rav, reminds us, this world is an entrance way to the true world. Focus on this world not as the end purpose, the finished monument, but as your path to your purpose in serving Hashem, with steps along the way.

In truth, each of us is comprised of both a body and a soul. The soul is our essence; it wants to serve Hashem. Our bodies are meant to facilitate that true desire. When we allow our bodies to dominate our souls, rather than being free, we have exiled our true selves, our souls, writes Rabbi Kestenbaum. We need to find a way to give ourselves the kind of emotional, spiritual high that we get from physical pleasure. We need to let the shofar blast awaken the joy of our spiritual soul, adds Rabbi Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv. Our spiritual essence must remain our priority.

However, Yaakov Avinu taught us a lesson in the value of a single stone, writes Rabbi Tuvyah Weiss quoting the Chatam Sofer. Yaakov Avinu initially took twelve individual stones, but under his head they became united in their mission, in serving Hashem. During the time of the Avot, Hashem loved most individual worship. But after we received the Torah, Hashem continues to value individual service most especially when it is united for community service. Use individual resources and talents to build schools and shuls, to provide for communal needs.

This idea is further modeled for us in the symbolism of the arba minim, the four species we hold and bless on Sukkot. Symbolically, each species represents a different kind of individual. While the Etrog represents the completely righteous person, both in his relationship to Hashem and to people, it is held in the left hand. In the right, dominant hand are the three other species, none is individually as complete and pure as the tzadik. The three serve Hashem as a group, and even the etrog is held close to them, for the tzadik himself also needs the support of the community. As the final Psalm suggests, each individual has his own beautiful melody, every soul sings God's praises, but it is only together that we can create the soaring symphony of praise to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. It is in the joining of the multitude that we get the glory of the King.

While one may certainly learn Torah by himself or pray alone when options are limited, it is preferable to join with others for mutual support, writes Maharitz Dushinsky. That is why groups often gather to divide and complete reciting the entire Tehillim together rather than each woman in her own home. That is the message of the mizbeach/altar, to gather individual stones together for a single purpose.

The community has the power to arouse Hashem's mercy for the aggregate, a mercy greater than would be extended to the isolated individual. That was the reasoning of the Shunamite woman who built a special room for the Prophet Elisha in her home. When Elisha asked how he could repay her, after all he was a person of influence and he could speak to kings and officials on her behalf, she refused to be singled out, replying "Betoch ami anochi yoshev/I am [content] dwelling in the midst of my people." When a person attaches himself to the congregation and the community, he accrues the merits of kllal Yisroel, of the aggregate Nation of Israel, a community that is always attached to Hashem's mercy.

How do we achieve this sense of unity? First, says Rabbi Walkin, when we pray, even if we have a personal agenda, we should always pray in the plural, "Heal us," "Bless us, our Father..." Then, we must picture the world as in perfect balance between merit and sin, any my personal action has the power to sway the balance in either direction. Let us always consider acting to benefit the community, for even the smallest action may be the proverbial straw or the hoisting crane. Whenever possible, let me join my effort to the communal effort.

In our Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we ask Hashem to look for the good, "Look to the [communal] covenant, and not to the [individual] creature." This should be our mantra as well, to search out the good in others, create love and peace, and then Hashem will also search for the good in us. As Rabbi Brenner reminds us, Moshe Rabbenu himself understood and taught us, "Hashem became King over Yeshurun... when the tribes gathered together in unity." The evil inclination knows the power of unity, and tries to create disunity and animosity to delay the advent of Moshiach. But when we sing the praises of others, it becomes a song of ascents, uplifting the nation. This is the true mizbeach, the altar to bring Hashem the offerings He desires. This is the power of the people, of community.

A monument is static, monolithic. That is why it can represent a person when his life has ended, when he can no longer move and act but can bear testimony to what he has accomplished during his life, writes Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt"l. The living should not be static, with limited action. A person should be mobile, looking for opportunities for growth, for building stone upon stone, like a mizbeach, writes Rabbi Mintzberg. What limits us is a lack of confidence in our own ability. But although we see ourselves as small, we are still great in Hashem's eyes. Like the stars that appear small and distant here below, we nevertheless have light and energy. Believe in yourself. Read books to inspire you. That growth is the work of the month of Elul. Write a mission statement of how you can improve yourself and impact others, whether through a learning program, participation in chesed, observance of mitzvoth -- look for opportunities for growth. As Rabbi Weissblum encourages us in Heorat Derech, find your personal strength, build on your world, on the talents and tools Hashem has invested in you. That is your responsibility.

Hashem's first command to Avraham Avinu was lech lecha/go, move forward. Hashem abhors the static life. He knows we can keep moving forward. This is the pillar we can lean on as we build our relationship with Hashem and with each other, and grow toward the potential Hashem wants us to strive for.