|This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my maternal grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, my paternal grandfather Moshe Ben Yosef A”H, uncle Reuven Nachum Ben Moshe & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein.
It should also be in Zechus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta-MY BROTHER: MENACHEM MENDEL SHLOMO BEN CHAYA ROCHEL
-HaRav Gedalia Dov Ben Perel
-Yechiel Baruch HaLevi Ben Liba Gittel
-Amitai Dovid Ben Rivka Shprintze
יִתְרוֹ ● Yisro
● Why did Hashem command the B’nei Yisrael about making gods of gold and silver and building an altar immediately following the Aseres HaDibros? ●
“Epilogue to the Decalogue”
In the incredible event of Kabbalas HaTorah, the young B’nei Yisrael experienced greatest Divine Revelation at Har Sinai as they were presented the Aseres HaDibros (Decalogue; Ten “Commandments”).1 These famous ten statements, more than mere commandments or declarations, were ideals representing the breadth of the covenant between Hashem and the B’nei Yisrael—a seal of the Torah at large.
However, the Aseres HaDibros were not the only set of laws taught in this Sidrah at the site of Har Sinai. There is a brief, but noticeable epilogue to the Decalogue. For some reason, soon after Hashem related the Aseres HaDibros, He issued a few other commands.2 In this smaller collection of commandments, He commanded them (1) not to make gods of silver and gold, (2) to build a Mizbei’ach or altar from earth for offerings, but not to use hewn stones for the Mizbei’ach, (3) and not to have stairs for it either.
No gods of Gold and Silver
Now, the basis for these laws themselves is not so difficult. For example, regarding the command against gods of silver and gold, the obvious explanation would seem to be: Idolatry. The problem though is that this kind of concern was seemingly addressed already in the Aseres HaDibros themselves when G-d proclaimed that He is their G-d and that the B’nei Yisrael should have no other gods. In those two first statements, G-d discussed the details of idolatry at length and made clear that it is wrong. Why then would G-d need to command them regarding this issue again? Was this later commandment not included in idolatry? Was it meant to serve as some post-script to command against idolatry, perhaps modifying that commandment? If it was, what exactly was it contributing?
No Stones and Stairs
In order to understand the basis for the rules surrounding the Mizbei’ach, that it apparently needed to be made of non-hewn stones and without stairs, Rashi quotes a couple of homiletical teachings from Chazal. The stones, he explains3, could not have been cut with the sword because the sword shortens life while the Mizbei’ach is designed to lengthen life, etc. Thus, the Torah intimates that the sword would disgrace the altar. Regarding the stairs, the Torah mentions that stairs would cause a revealing one’s “nakedness” upon the Altar. Apparently, walking with large strides on stairs would therefore be inappropriate and the only to properly ascend the Mizbei’ach would have to be via a ramp.4
The question on this entire series though, is: Why here and now? Why were we immediately commanded to build an altar? And why do we need to be told about these details of the altar now?
The Sinai Experience – Once in a Lifetime
In order to understand the deeper meaning behind this mini-set of laws, we have to answer a larger question regarding the greater Divine Revelation of Kabbalas HaTorah itself. Why did G-d put on this great display to begin with? At this point, it is hard to imagine history, Jewish history for sure, without the Divine Revelation at Sinai. But if one thinks about it, it was an incredible presentation that G-d apparently did once and just decided not to ever do again.
But, why did G-d do it then and not now? If Divine Revelation is important so that we should recognize Hashem, then shouldn’t He reveal Himself in the clear again, maybe once a year or at least once per generation? Would our people today not gain from something like that? How many people struggle to adhere to Torah observance or even believe in the Torah’s ideals because they “can’t see G-d” or any “proof” of G-d’s existence, or the authenticity of the Torah? Perhaps another Divine Revelation for our generation would prove productive. However, as far as we know, there is no plan for one. Yet, G-d Himself would likely admit that the mass Divine Revelation was necessary at some point, for in fact, He ultimately resolved to reveal Himself, at least that one time. So, why did G-d do it that way? Why is Divine Revelation any less necessary now where seemingly all of the same obstacles that perhaps necessitated the first Divine Revelation are all still present? How could G-d expect us to be inspired and relate to Him our personal G-d if He refuses to put on the same flashy, open display in every generation?
Setting the Precedent
This question as to why G-d won’t always just make miraculous, earth-shattering appearances, the Torah actually addresses already. Right after the Aseres HaDibros, before the aforementioned laws, the Torah describes a frightened B’nei Yisrael who preferred to speak to Moshe Rabbeinu instead of G-d “lest they die” from G-d’s Presence.5 At least one reason why He doesn’t show His Presence all the time is that His unadulterated “Presence” is just too overwhelmingly beyond human capacity both to fathom and handle. Hashem’s Presence as it is could only be imagined as something of burning light of ultimate perfection and purity. The B’nei Yisrael’s human feebleness and impurity simply could not withstand that Presence, and G-d would have to change the nature of Creation all of the time do accomplish this, and that would literally be counterproductive to the original plan of Creation.
In a related vein, the need for G-d’s Presence to be hidden is also rooted in the idea of the inherent worldly need for Bechirah Chofshis, “free choice”; for if G-d would be perceivable in an open way too often, one would not truly have a choice to do either good or bad.
But if all of the above is true, that a Divine Revelation was not ideal, then why was it that G-d did, in fact, perform this display for the generation who stood at Har Sinai? Moreover, in the plain text, it appears evident that, indeed, G-d did remove the peoples’ free choice, as Moshe Rabbeinu actually tells the B’nei Yisrael that G-d came to them so that they may fear Him and not sin.6 And indeed, as was mentioned earlier, this display was undoubtedly a miraculous dispensation of the rules of G-d’s natural world. G-d did choose, at this moment, to defy the nature of His Creation. So, if G-d won’t do it all the time, why did G-d do it at all?
The simplest answer to this question, if one thinks about it, is that Hashem appeared at Har Sinai this one time because He had to. As hard as it would be to have free choice if G-d would show Himself to us, but as we suggested in an earlier discussion7, it would be all the more impossible for us to have free choice and not succumb to sin if there was no precedent set that there is a G-d. Thus, G-d had to appear once in front of our faces, letting us know that He is in charge. Hashem needed to create an experiential, sensory basis to awaken the B’nei Yisrael to set that precedent. But once that precent would be set, we have our work cut out for us. The history of the great revelation would have to be transmitted by tradition. But there could only be one such revelation.
The Catch-22 of Life
What emerges then is that we don’t have daily Gilui Shechinah, a Revelation of the Divine Presence, because as was mentioned, we can’t truly relate to G-d that way—He is G-d, not human; He is pure, we are impure. Yet, without Him in our view, invariably, we also will be unable to relate to Him, because without revelation in the form of a humanly conceivable deity, we have seemingly no way to communicate with Him. This challenge is the Catch-22 of life which was not just something that the B’nei Yisrael faced at the end of the Aseres HaDibros, but something we all face today as well. Thus, the challenge is: What happens after the spectacle of Kabbalas HaTorah? What do people who cannot or can no longer see G-d do to relate to Him?
Bringing Him Down to Earth
It is right after Moshe Rabbeinu’s discussion with the B’nei Yisrael that he goes up into the dark clouds above Sinai and receives the new instruction from G-d. And what does G-d tell him to tell the people? He tells them not to makes gods of silver and gold, but to make an altar, and how exactly they should make that altar. What was it that G-d was addressing here, though?
Hashem explains to the people that, yes, we don’t have the revealed, Divine Presence. We don’t have a “likeness” of Hashem in front of us through which we may relate to him. But we do have our own human Avodah or service with which to relate to Him. In other words, Hashem warns them not to get caught up in the phenomenon that they saw at Sinai because it would by no means be a common occurrence—in fact, it would never happen again. And that’s okay, because that phenomenal experience would not be the lasting essence of their relationship with G-d. The relationship would be founded on something more natural, something worldly—something that they can relate to as people. What does a people who cannot see G-d to do to relate to Him? What is the solution to a limited people who cannot ascend the mountain of G-d, enter the clouds and find Him in the heavens? Bring G-d down to Earth and serve Him there. Thus, the Mizbei’ach was instituted for generations.
Looks Can Be Deceiving
The relationship between G-d and the B’nei Yisrael, as we’ve been describing could be better understood and likened to that of two typical human lovers, a man and woman. The physical aspect, the sensory experience of the relationship—the stimulating display, although necessary at times, is not the truest essence of the relationship, and anyone who thinks it is or should be will always end up disappointed with his relationship, because that relationship does not always live up to the standards of his imagination of the visuals. There is toil and effort, burden and frustration, responsibility and commitment—a covenant—that makes the relationship meaningful. It is certainly not the night of the wedding that captures the truest spirit of the marriage, but it is every second that follows, the good times and the bad, the continued devotion and the exertion.
Images of Gold, No. Altar of Earth, Yes.
More than just a warning about simple Avodah Zarah or Idolatry, G-d was warning them not to feed into the reasonable yearning to produce model gods “with” Him, in other words, elegant visual adornments to recreate the physical, sensory exhibition that they no longer had. That is not what an actual relationship with G-d looks like. Maybe, they saw such angels and other lofty sights on their “wedding day” at Har Sinai, but now it was time for them to wake up and snap back to their reality.
Instead of makeshift gods of gold and silver, Hashem commanded them to make an altar of simple earth. Why? Because it’s not about the awesome experience of Sinai which is, more or less, the misleading “magic” and “fantasy” of the relationship. That display would NOT always there. There are always limits and boundaries to the externality of the relationship. The essence of the relationship is much more “real” in a worldly manner, and actually reaches so much deeper for that reason. It is the toil and exertion, and not the nostalgia that makes the relationship real. Says G-d, “Don’t make Me visual statues which necessarily fail to capture My true essence and that hardly represent the basis of our relationship—rather, make Me an altar to serve Me and relate to Me through heartfelt service.”
Keep it Real, but Keep it Holy
Now that we understand why G-d needed to qualify His relationship with the B’nei Yisrsael following the Sinai experience with the command to build a Mizbei’ach, we can begin to understand the details associated with the construction of this Mizbei’ach.
As was mentioned, the building of the Altar would serve as the worldly avenue through which humans could relate to a lofty G-d. It is the way we maintain that relationship that it should remain real or, at least realistic to us. However, there is an important compromise, a balance that has to be attained to make this mode of relating to G-d materialize. Yes, the mode has to be real and realistic on a human level, but it has to actually incorporate a degree of holiness so that we understand that indeed, it is G-d after all with Whom we are relating. In short, they would have to keep it real, but also keep it holy.
Thus, in the service of G-d, as in any relationship, G-d demands a delicate measure of sanctity and sensitivity. Accordingly, G-d commanded that they built the altar with a few caveats. “Hewn stones,” for example, is a no-no as it is symbol of the sword which, as was mentioned, represents a disgrace to the altar, because the sword turns life to death, holy to mundane. It creates a void, lifelessness, which represents lack of true meaning. The altar, representing the essence relationship, dies without meaning. And similarly, stepping up onto stairs represents the revelation of pure nakedness which intrinsically, also lacks depth in a relationship. In fact, it is the over-fixation on physical nakedness in any relationship that often becomes a major perversion of the relationship. It is actually a form of idolatry. It is the mistake which the B’nei Yisrael would end up making if they’d think that the Sinai experience was the be-all end-all of their relationship with G-d.
In the end, though Hashem revealed Himself to us in the incredible display at Har Sinai, He was careful to follow up with a necessary warning of what it would take to maintain the relationship and covenant we formed with Him there. When the B’nei Yisrael would truly begin their marriage with Hashem through their services, they would have to remain ever mindful of what truly matters throughout.
May we all be Zocheh to relate to use our human Avodos to relate Hashem in a most real and intimate way and Hashem should accept our Avodos favorably and ultimately rest His Presence among us with the coming of the Geulah in the days of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
-Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂
- Shemos 20
- Citing Middos 3:4 and Mechilta
- Citing Mechilta
- Shemos 20:16
- See what I wrote earlier in this Sidrah; “From Eden to Sinai – Boundaries & Breaches,” The Post-Eden Imbalance and the Equalizer at Sinai.