The Service of Pillars and Altars
The Service of Pillars and Altars

Returning to Beth El

Having survived the confrontation with Esau and his militia, the mysterious nighttime struggle at Peniel, the abduction of his daughter Dinah, and the battle of Shechem - Jacob finally made his way back to Beth El. Twenty years earlier, Jacob had stayed overnight in Beth El, dreaming of angels and Divine protection as he fled from his brother Esau. Now he would fulfill his decades-old promise to worship God in that holy place.

In preparation for this spiritual journey, Jacob instructed his family:

"Remove the foreign gods that are in your midst. Purify yourselves and change your clothes. Then we will rise and ascend to Beth El. There I will construct an altar to God, Who answered me in my hour of trouble, and Who accompanied me in the path that I took." (Gen. 35:2-3)

The first time Jacob had come to Beth El, he had erected a matzeivah, a pillar to worship God. But now, Jacob built a mizbei'ach, an altar. What is the difference between worshipping God with a matzeivah and with a mizbei'ach?

The Torah later prohibits erecting a matzeivah, even if it is used to worship God (Deut. 16:22). The Sages explained that the matzeivah "was beloved in the time of the Patriarchs, but abhorred in the time of their descendants" (SifriShoftim 146).

What brought about this change in status?

Service of the Klal

The difference between a matzeivah and a mizbei'ach is primarily a physical one. A matzeivah is a single large stone, while a mizbei'ach is an altar constructed from many stones. The switch from matzeivah to mizbei'ach indicates a paradigm shift that took place in the way God was to be served, between the time of the Patriarchs and their descendants.

Each of the three Avot - Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - had his own path of serving God. Abraham served God with his overriding traits of love, kindness and hospitality. Isaac served God with awe and submission, traits he acquired at the Akeidah. And Jacob, the 'scholarly man who dwelled in tents [of Torah],' served God with his trait of Torah.

In the time of the Patriarchs, each of the Avot was the sole leading light of his generation. His special trait dominated the era; his path of serving God was the appropriate path for that time. This period was aptly represented by the metaphor of the matzeivah. A single stone, a single path to serve God.

As Jacob returned to the Land of Israel, however, the situation had changed. He arrived at Beth 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 klal, 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 Avot.

The Jewish people requires a variety of talents and fields of expertise. Spiritual leadership and kohanim came from the tribe of Levi. Kings and national leaders from Judah, while Issachar excelled in producing scholars and judges. Other tribes specialized in commerce, agriculture, and defending the nation.

With Jacob's return to Beth El, the new paradigm of serving God became the mizbei'ach, composed of many stones. This was no longer a time of one single, uniform service of God. There were many paths to serve God, which joined together in one altar, as all aspired to the same goal of serving God.

'Change Your Clothes'

With these divergent paths to serve God, however, a new problem arose. Each group may come to believe that their path is the most important, and belittle the efforts of others. Jacob realized, as they prepared to worship God with the multiple stone mizbei'ach at Beth El, that it was necessary to take special measures to unite the family.

Jacob therefore instructed his family, "Remove the foreign gods in your midst." The Sages taught that the evil inclination is a 'foreign god' (Shabbat 105b). Jacob pleaded that they remove the evil inclination which makes others 'foreign' and estranged. We must recognize that, on the inside, we are united in purpose and soul. For this reason, the Torah refers to Jacob's family as "seventy soul" (Ex. 1:5) - in the singular. For the souls of the Jewish people are united at their source.

It is only the externals - in deeds and actions - that separate us. Therefore Jacob requested that they purify themselves by changing their clothes. It is only the superficial exterior which conceals our true inner unity.

Then, Jacob announced, we will be ready to ascend to Beth El, and worship God together. There we will serve God using a mizbei'ach, composed of many stones and many paths - but all working together toward the same goal of serving God.

(Adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 74-75, sent to Arutz Sheva by Rabbi Chanan Morrison of Rav Kook on the Net: