The needs, desires and aspirations of the individual oftentimes appear to be at odds with those of the nation. Appropriately, within the verse describing the ritual associated with the giving of the Torah –- the covenant that brought individuals together as a nation -– lies the resolution to the tension between individual and nation.
“And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar under the mount, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel” (Ex. 24:4).
Now, while it was not until the Torah was given that the prohibition of erecting pillars as part of any religious rite was promulgated, it is strange that Moses would employ pillars in the ceremony of accepting the very Torah that forbids them. For, when the prohibition against pillars is made, it is articulated in the most forceful terms, “Neither shalt thou set thee up a pillar, which the Lord thy God hates.” (Deut. 16:22).
The term “hate” has to give us pause, for though there are a great many activities that God prohibits, rarely is the reason His hatred. In fact, the only other place we find that God “hates” something is in repudiation of the various modes of Canaanite worship:
“When the Lord thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee… and thou dwellest in their land; take heed to thyself that thou be not ensnared to follow them, after that they are destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying: ‘How used these nations to serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.’ Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God; for every abomination to the Lord, which He hates, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters do they burn in the fire to their gods.” (Deut. 12:29-31).
R. Hezekiah b. Manoah (13th century, France), known as Hizkuni, explains these verses to teach that even if you might find some particular form of worship of theirs appropriate to direct yourself to God, this only elicits God’s anger. But why such utter disdain for various modes of worship? Of course burning children is an abomination, but pouring oil on a pillar seems innocuous enough.
Rashi (Deut. 16:22) notes that what makes the usage of pillars so odious to God is that they were the form of worship used by the Canaanites. He explains that “even though pillars were a beloved form of worship in the time of the patriarchs, now that they have become the accepted practice for idolatry they are hated by God.” Yet if this is the reason, argues Nachmanidies, the Torah should have also prohibited altars, since the Canaanites employed them as well! He explains that though the argument is true, it was ignored for the sake of expediency, as there was an essential need for a mode of worship which the altar served; and so it was kept.
We are still left wondering if there isn’t something deeper that distinguishes between pillar and altar. It appears to me that the answer to this, and indeed, to our inquiry on individual and nation, lies within the very objects that are the pillar and the altar.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that there is a message inherent in the fundamental difference between a pillar, made of one natural stone, and an altar, built by man of multiple stones. He writes: “the pillar, a stone taken from God’s creation, represents a memorial to that which God has done for us in Nature and History; whereas the altar, a structure built up out of several stones by human hands is meant to represent the devotion of human activity to God” (Deut. 16:22). R. Hirsch explains that before the giving of the Torah, true spirituality required that man acknowledge God’s providence in nature and fate –- symbolized by the single natural stone. After the giving of the Torah, however, God rejected this “simple” acknowledgement and instead expected man to take action, to take nature –- symbolized by taking several stones built together –- and raise it up through obedience to the divine moral code that is the Torah.
But there is even more to be revealed through the symbolism of the pillar and the altar. Returning to the verse from our parsha, “And Moses… built an altar under the mount, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel,” we had asked how Moses could erect pillars when they were so despised by God. The answer is that this juncture in time –- the very giving of the Torah -– represents the transition from the period of the patriarchs to the period of the nation. Moses did not erect (vayatzeiv) pillars, but rather built (banah) an altar composed of twelve pillars. The patriarchs, like the pillars they used, were singular individuals, mavericks staking out new spiritual vistas. Each, in his own unique way, sought to bring about an awareness of the Creator to an idol worshiping world. In contrast, the nation of Israel, upon receiving their mission statement that is the Torah, became a conglomeration of individuals, like the altar of twelve stones, united in the singular goal of revealing divine morality to a world where man thought to be his own moral arbiter.
The days of the mavericks charting their own course are gone, and though the patriarchs were “beloved” for their iconoclastic nature, what is needed now are the concerted efforts of every individual in the nation working together to fulfill the moral mission of Israel -– to be a “light unto the nations.” This does not mean there is no room for individuality, for the altar, built of twelve unique stones “according to the twelve tribes of Israel,” intimates that the nation is a heterogeneous amalgamate, not a monolith.
Furthermore, though it might seem that the spiritual creativity of the patriarchs is to give way to servile obedience, nothing could be further from the truth. For, though the Torah provides the fundamental moral truths upon which we are to guide our lives, the very process of extracting its ideals and applying them in every generation requires innovation, perhaps no less demanding than that evinced by the patriarchs. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (“Not In Heaven,” p.83) explains: “The supreme principle of the law to which man is subject is theonomous, its ultimate source of authority is the will of God; the interpretation of the law and its application to the innumerable and forever-changing life situations is autonomous.”
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (“Fate and Destiny,” p.55) explains that the covenant of the Torah is the covenant of destiny -– by accepting it the individual transcends himself. It is only by aligning one’s personal aspirations with those of the nation that the individual can truly actualize his creativity.
The lone pillar is not only to be eschewed; it is to be contemned, for it represents the individual seeking out his own path, mired in fate and distinct from the destiny of the nation. To fulfill purpose, as individuals and as nation, we must be united in cause -– “one people with one heart.” The altar of twelve pillars represents the nation acknowledging not only the Creator but the Lawgiver. The altar of twelve pillars represents the people unified in purpose to bring the world to its destined peace through the moral teachings of the Torah.