By Rabbi Josh Gerstein – Chazon Yechezkel Synagogue, Arab Quarter of the Old City
A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar (mizbeiach); it shall not go out (Vayikra 6:6)
Many of the issues and challenges that confront the State of Israel today, seem to revolve around our inability to put aside our differences and to unite together as one people. This problem is not new to today, rather it is a challenge that we as a people have always struggled with. In Biblical times, Joseph argued with his brothers, the First Temple was destroyed after the Jewish Kingdom split in two, and finally, the Second Temple and Jerusalem fell due to corrosive divisiveness and baseless hatred. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks aptly reminds us, “The only people capable of threatening the future of the Jewish people are the Jewish People.”(Future Tense, p.33) But it must also be true that if it is only the Jewish people who are capable of threatening our future, so too we must be the ones who change it for the better.
In the Torah portion of Vayishlach, we find a message that may very well hold the key to our redemption – if only we have the courage to take it to heart and implement it as God intended. In preparation for Jacob’s building of a mizbeiach (alter) in Beit El, he instructs his family, “Remove the deities of the foreign nations which are in your midst, purify yourselves and change your clothes. And we will arise and go up to Beit El, and I will make an altar (mizbeiach)…”(Genesis 35:2-3) It is interesting to note that in this instance, as opposed to the first service that Jacob performed in Beit El years earlier, he used a mizbeiach (altar) rather than a matzeivah (pillar) to worship God. This change in practice begs the question–what is the fundamental difference between a mizbeaich and a matzeivah, why did Jacob now switch the mode of practice and what important lesson can we learn from these two different approaches of serving God?
Rabbi Chanan Morrison, the author of “Sapphire from the Land of Israel,” presents a fascinating perspective on these two modes of service from the commentary of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi in Israel during the British Mandate period. Rav Kook explains that the integral difference between a pillar and an alter is one of a physical nature and state of being. A pillar is comprised of one large stone, whereas an alter is comprised of many individual stones placed together. With Jacob building an alter in Beit El, and not a pillar, we are witnessing a paradigm shift in practice of divine service. While Abraham and Isaac lived alone in a world devoid of sanctity, theirs was the sole true path of drawing close to God. Writes Rabbi Morrison, “This period was aptly represented by the metaphor of the matzeivah. A single stone, a single path to serve God.” But with the emergence Jacob and his 12 righteous sons, there grew an opportunity for diversity. “He arrived at Beit El with twelve sons, the twelve tribes of Israel. No longer was there a single spiritual path for the generation. This was the start of a new era: the service of the collective.
Each of Jacob’s sons developed his own way of serving God, based on a unique combination of the spiritual paths of the three patriarchs.” With this new reality, service through a matzeivah comprised of just one stone was no longer appropriate; rather, an alter which is composed of many stones was deemed more fitting.
From here on out, there was no longer just one way to reach the divine, but instead multiple paths converged together with the aim of reaching the same goal. Rav Kook’s fundamental insight described above is echoed in the writings of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, where in a later verse in Genesis, the Torah tells of a conversation between Jacob and his son Joseph. In this story, Jacob relates to his son of God’s promise to “make you fruitful and cause you to multiply, and I will make you into a congregation of peoples.”(Genesis 48:4) On the unique phrase “a congregation of peoples” Rav Hirsch explains that the very secret and strength of the Jewish people lies in its diversity. Writes Rav Hirsch, “The Jewish nation is to represent agriculture as well as commerce, militarism as well as culture and learning. The Jewish people will be a nation of farmers, a nation of businessmen, a nation of soldiers and a nation of science. Thereby, as a model nation, to establish the truth that the one great personal and national task which God revealed in his Torah is not dependent on any particular kind of talent or character trait, but that the whole of humanity in all its shades and diversity can equally find its calling in one common spiritual and moral mission and outlook on life.” (Rav Hirsch Commentary on Bereishit 48:3-4) According to Rav Kook, this is the reason that Jacob implored his sons to change their clothes when building an alter in Beit El. He was symbolically calling for the Jewish people to shed the external trappings which all too often divide us, and are repeatedly found at the root of our strife.
As the Jewish people are restored to the Land of Israel, the time has come to take this lesson to heart. Rav Kook, writes, “If we were destroyed, and the world destroyed along with us, by sinat chinnam (baseless hatred), then we may return and be rebuilt, and the world rebuilt along with us, by ahavat chinnam (baseless love).” (Orot Ha-kodesh 3:323-324) Rav Kook’s son, Rav Tzvi Yehuda, explains the definition of the term ahavat chinnam — it is not meant to imply baseless love in the negative sense, that there is no foundation or meaning to this love. Rather it is love without boundary or ulterior motives. Writes Rav Tzvi Yehuda, “This love is not dependent on anything. It is like God’s love for the Jewish people, which is an eternal covenant…Baseless Love comes when there are no personal advancements to be won. This love exists regardless of any shortcomings in the beloved and without any conditions that have to be met. Even with all of the deficiencies and imperfections in people, love for them must be total…There may be great differences among personalities; there may be great disagreements in study; there may be great debates over the right thing to do.
Nevertheless, true love transcends all of this and surrounds all of the children of Israel. This is the eternal love of God for His people.” (Li-ntivot Yisrael 2, 222) Only by working together, with all of our differences and while fostering a love that can transcend all, will we be able to build an alter which will shine a bright and never ending light on the future of the Jewish people.