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PILLAR OF STRENGTH

by Eyal Feiler    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

In the opening of this week's portion, the Torah forbids the Jewish people from erecting a single pillar (Deuteronomy 16:22). Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, clarifies that this prohibition relates to the use of a single rock as a sacrificial altar.

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In the opening of this week's portion, the Torah forbids the Jewish people from erecting a single pillar (Deuteronomy 16:22). Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, clarifies that this prohibition relates to the use of a single rock as a sacrificial altar. In the time of the forefathers, Hashem accepted offerings on this type of altar, but "now," says Rashi, Hashem despises the use of a single pillar since other nations used similar structures in their idol worship.

This explains why offerings on these types of altars are forbidden. However, what does Rashi mean when he says "now"? Does it refer to the period when the Jews are wandering in the desert? Unlikely - because, soon after the Jewish people received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, Moses built not just one, but twelve pillars each made of an individual stone for use in offering sacrifices (Exodus 24:4). Pillars were used in the desert, but suddenly they are repulsed by Hashem. As such, Rashi's comment requires further review.

Rabbi Ben Zion Firer, a contemporary Torah scholar in Israel, explains that the use of a single rock represents physical strength. In fact, there are several events in the Torah where great strength is highlighted through one rock or pillar. Several well-known episodes with Jacob immediately come to mind. On his way to the house of Laban, Jacob awoke from his dream of the ladder and "took the stone that he placed around his head and set it up as a pillar" (Genesis 28:18). Later, Jacob rolls the single rock covering the well for the benefit of his future wife Rachel and her father's flock. While the other shepherds could not move the rock, Jacob single-handedly removed the stone from the mouth of the well and watered the flock (ibid. 29:10).

Finally, years later, when Jacob runs away with his family and is confronted by Laban, Jacob makes a treaty with Laban by taking a stone and raising it up as a monument (ibid. 31:45), while he tells others in his family to collectively gather stones for their monuments. Again a single stone demonstrates Jacob's physical might. Yet, in this week's portion, the Torah commands that G-d despises a single stone for use as a monument. What exactly does Hashem not like?

Consider this verse in the book of Zechariah (4:6): "Not through armies and not through might, but through My spirit, says Hashem." There is an inherent tension between human strength and one's pure faith in Hashem. The extension of strength - whether physical, monetary, or vocal - is one's sense of self-sufficiency which may lead to arrogance and the eventual abandonment of Hashem and the Torah. In fact, the Torah itself warns us against this tendency: "You may [erroneously] say in your heart, 'My strength and the might of my hand made me this wealth'" (Deuteronomy 8:17).

At the same time, there is a flip side to one's feeling of self-strength. If strength becomes the driver for all action, one might also fear the strength of one's enemies and not be comforted with the faith that Hashem is the real source of strength. The Jews who came out of Egypt were heavily influenced by physical force and therefore had difficulty placing true and wholehearted faith in Hashem. As slaves in Egypt, they were subject to the will of their Egyptian masters, as were their ancestors for as long as anyone could remember. It is not surprising, therefore, that when spies went to Israel to explore the land, reports of powerful inhabitants in the land terrified the first generation of Jews in the desert. The nation's pre-occupation with strength drowned out their faith in Hashem.

However in this week's Torah portion, explains Rabbi Firer, Moses is speaking to the generation who was born in the desert or was too young to remember Egypt. Rashi refers to the era of this generation as "now". Therefore, Moses warns the nation that when bringing sacrifices, an act that is an attempt to draw closer to Hashem, one must do so from a perspective of faith and humility rather than strength and arrogance. The single pillar, representative of self-assurance, is therefore forbidden. Now, after the first generation has died, Moses is trying to prevent the next generation from making the mistakes of the earlier one. A generation born in the desert, immune from any physical threats, supported completely through blatant miracles performed directly by Hashem on a daily basis, should have little difficulty in grasping the concept of true and complete faith in G-d. Therefore, Moses can now tell the Jewish people to refrain from using pillars in sacrificial offerings.

Perhaps the key to balancing strength, faith, and humility lies in the episode where Jacob awakens from his dream and erects the pillar. Throughout the passage, Jacob declares that his reason for establishing the pillar is to give thanks to Hashem for looking after him. When Jacob awakens from his sleep he is keenly aware of Hashem's presence. He then states that this pillar is a declaration of his faith in Hashem that he will be looked after in his travels. Finally, he says that the place where this pillar stands will be a house of G-d. Before, during, and after the description of establishing the pillar, Jacob declares his faith in Hashem. In doing so, Jacob acknowledges that the source of his strength is from Hashem and therefore, while making a pillar representing strength, he declares that the strength's source is Hashem.

As we approach the judgment of Rosh Hashanah, perhaps we can think about each of our own personal strengths and how we can use them more effectively for Torah purposes rather than simply for our own goals.

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Eyal Feiler, who hails from Atlanta, writes from New York.

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