Shortly after proclaiming the Ten Commandments, G-d tells Moshe that the Jews should make “an altar of earth” (Exodus 20:21). Why? What’s so special about this command that it should appear so soon after the awesome revelation at Mt. Sinai?
In the previous verse, G-d tells Moshe the Jews shouldn’t make “gods of silver and gods of gold.” They might be inspired to do so to represent the G-d they had just heard speaking to them from heaven. But G-d says no, “what you are to do is not to bring heavenly things down to you on earth, but to elevate all earthly things up to Me. When you wish to come to Me, you have not to represent to yourselves things that you imagine are with Me in heaven, but rather to ponder on how I wish things to be carried on by you on earth.”
Rav Hirsch writes later on in his commentary to this verse: “[I]t is not heaven, but the earth, raised up towards G-d, which is to be in our minds when we wish to step near to G-d. It is on it – a mizbe’ach adamah – that we have to dedicate in olos our active life and in shelamim our…our passive life to the endeavor to get nearer up to G-d.”
In other words, G-d wants us to practice Torah im Derech Eretz. He doesn’t want us escaping life. He wants us to sanctify it. Some thinkers separate life in two: body and soul, earth and heaven. Not Rav Hirsch. He stresses that we are called on by G-d, not to raise ourselves above the earth but to uplift the earth itself. We are to build an “altar of earth” to Him.
Indeed, so important is this charge that Rav Hirsch notes that “even an intervening space of a handbreadth [between the altar and the ground] would make the altar pasul (Tosefta, Ohalos, 9).” G-d doesn’t want us to be luftmenschen. He wants us to be connected to the physical – and to uplift it.
Elliot Resnick, PhD, is the host of “The Elliot Resnick Show” and the editor of an upcoming work on etymological explanations in Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on Chumash.