Parshat Shoftim 5782: Idolatrous Trees and Pillars, and Alien Ideologies and Cults — Today’s Iterations of Avodah Zora?

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshat HaShavua, Parshat Shoftim is being sponsored by Dr. Ari and Judy Mosenkis of Ramat Beit Shemesh dedicated in honor of shidduchim for all those who need it and for a refuah shelaima for all cholei yisrael!. To the Mosenkis family, many thanks for your sponsorship and for your continued kindnesses and good wishes

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Best Regards,

Moshe Burt

Parshat Shoftim 5782: Idolatrous Trees and Pillars, and Alien Ideologies and Cults — Today’s Iterations of Avodah Zora?

by Moshe Burt

As in previous vorts on our Parshat Shoftim, this author begins by focusing on the Torah requirement of appointment of judges, and officers of the court to enforce judicial decisions without prejudice or bribe, either for or against litigants, and with righteous judgement. (This Author’s summary of Sefer Devarim, Perek 16, posukim 18-19)

The third posuk of our parsha reads:

“Tzedek, Tzedek tierdof…” Righteousness, righteousness (also rendered Justice, Justice) you shall pursue that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord, your G’d gives you.” (Sefer Devarim, Perek 16, posuk 20)

In short, this means the application of righteousness of judgement to police and law enforcement, as well as the judiciary. And the paradigm posuk of our Parshat: “Tzedek, Tzedek tierdof –(Justice, Justice) shall you pursue” would seem to apply to law enforcement to at least the same extent as to Judges and Judiciary.

Such righteousness regarding officers of the court, meaning law enforcement, and Judicial judgement must not be prejudiced by bribes, gifts, appearance of, or financial position of either litigant. Such righteousness, in a true Halachic state should/would be totally devoid of political agenda.

With this year’s vort, this author provides sources in discussing idolatrous trees (asheirahs), idolatrous pillars (matzeivot) versus the Altar (Mizbeiyach) where korbonot are brought to be offered to Hashem, and what may be seen as iterations and vehicles for today’s possible sequels to avodah zora — worship of false, alien ideologies. For those who read these vorts weekly, this author encourages clicking on the links provided for additional insights as to context of the discussions.

Early in our Parsha, just after Moshe addresses the appointment of Judges and Officers, that the Judicial system must provide righteous judgement, Torah accounts that Moshe states:

“You shall not plant for yourselves an idolatrous tree — any tree — near the Altar of Hashem…. And you shall not erect for yourselves a pillar which Hashem, your G’d hates.” (Sefer Devarim, Perek 16, posukim 21-22 as rendered to English in the Artscroll Stone Chumash, page 1025)

The Artscroll Stone Chumash comments on these posukim:

Forbidden trees and pillars. Asheirah, an idolatrous tree has two meanings: a tree intended for worship, even if it was meant to be worshiped by someone else at some future time; and any kind of tree planted near the Mizbeiyach (the Altar of the Beit Hamikdash), because it was the custom of idolaters to landscape their temples in order to attract worshippers. (Artscroll Stone Chumash citing Ramban) Thus, we see that the Torah places an emphasis on what takes place inside the courts and Batei Knesset, not the beauty of the exteriors.

Similarly, it is forbidden to set up a pillar (matzeivah), i.e., a single stone for any sort of worship — even for worship of Hashem. For He hates such stones since they had become associated with avodah zora. For His own service, Hashem has specified only an altar made of many stones or of earth. (Artscroll Stone Chumash citing Sefer Shemos, Perek 20, posuk 21-22)

The prohibition against a matzeivah brings up a puzzling question: What features, physical or otherwise, distinguish the matzeivah: the single stone pillar from the bamah, or Bamah Gedolah on which the Jews were permitted, only in certain circumstances, to offer korbonot to Hashem?

This author posed this question to HaRav Avishai David, Rabbi of Kehillat Beit Tefillah Yona Avraham. His response was that the only distinction between the matzeivah and the bamah was the intent of those using it. In other words, if the matzeivah, the single-stone pillar, was placed with intent of avodah zora, it was prohibited. The intent of the bamah, such as the Bamah Gedolah set up after the Plishtim captured the Aron HaKodesh (as recorded in 1 Shmuel, Perek 4), was for offering korbonot to Hashem.

Note that the Plishtim held the Aron HaKodesh for seven months before returning it to Beit Shemesh (as recorded in 1 Shmuel, Perek 5). It was then brought by B’nei Yisrael to the house of Avinadav at Kiryat Ye’arim where it remained for twenty years even though the Mishkan was at Nov. (Citing The Jewish Timeline Encyclopedia, by Mattis Kantor)

Thus, the Bamah Gedolah, and at times, the Bamah Yachid, were permitted only in circumstances where the Aron HaKodesh was not in our hands or when we were without the Mishkan or Beit HaMikdash. The Bamah was prohibited forever once we had Beit Hamikdash Rishon.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin writes, in his sefer, “Unlocking the Torah Text,” Sefer Devarim, pages 179-182) :

The Rabbis connect this ban [of the matzeivah: the single-stone pillar] to an imperative found in Sefer Shemos (Rabbi Goldin citing Perek 20, posuk 21-22) and explain that ritual in Judaism must take place only upon a Mizbeiyach, an altar created of earth or many stones.

The matzeivah mentioned in Moshe’s ban… are pillars designed for worship… used by idolaters. These worship pillars were always prohibited, according to the Abravanel, even during the patriarchal era. (Rabbi Goldin citing Abravanel on Sefer Devarim, Perek 16, posukim 21-22)

The vast majority of authorities… maintain that the ban in Parshat Shoftim does indeed prohibit pillars that were previously allowed during the patriarchal period. Rashi’s explanation for the shift, based on the Sifrei, is accepted by most: “and even though it [a matzeivah] was pleasing to Him during the days of the patriarchs, He now “hates” it because they [the Cana’anites] made it into an ordinance of idolatrous character. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rashi on Sefer Devarim, Perek 16, posuk 21)

There is nothing intrinsically objectionable to Hashem, Rashi claims, in the symbol of a single-stone pillar. Once such pillars become normative components in the idolatrous practices of the land, however, they attain a negativ[ity] that makes them completely prohibited.

The Ramban… entertains the possibility that pillars are ultimately forbidden to the Jews because the idolatrous use was universal, in contrast to the sporadic use of altars. He then offers… explanation. Every idolatrous temple… actually contained three components: a multi-stoned altar for offerings, a single-stone monument at the entrance, upon which their priests stood and an asheirah — a tree planted outside the door to point the way to worshippers.

As the Jews prepare to enter the Land, Hashem strikes a balance. In His desire to distance the nation from the idolatrous practices He abhors, Hashem expressly prohibits the use of trees and single-stone pillars within the context of Jews’ ritual worship. He continues to allow, however, the use of multi-stone altars necessary for the offerings He has commanded to the Jews. The rationale for such an allowance is based on the fact that Hashem found the use of such altars “pleasing,” even before the emergence of idolatrous worship onto the world stage. (Rabbi Goldin citing Ramban on Sefer Devarim Perek 16, posuk 22; Sefer Vayikra, Perek 1, posuk 9 based on Sefer Breish’t, Perek 4, posuk 4 and Perek 8, posuk 21)

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, ever true to his rational approach to Judaism’s thought and law, maintains that the halachic shift in attitude towards single-stone pillars reflects a fundamental transition in Hashem’s expectations for his people.

A matzeivah, a single-stone monument used without any alteration, R’ Hirsch explains, “serves as a memorial to that which Hashem has done for us in nature and history” [where the primary responsibility of the patriarchs, prior to Revelation at Har Sinai, was limited to the recognition and attestation of Hashem’s role]. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch on Sefer Devarim, Perek 16, posuk 22) A Mizbeiyach, a multi-stone altar, in contrast, “is meant to represent the devotion of human activity to Hashem.” (ibid)

Once the Revelation occurs, everything changes. “The single-stone pillar is not only included in, and absorbed by, the Mizbeiyach, but the matzeivah [the single-stone pillar] actually becomes sinful.” (ibid) Hashem’s expectation of the faithful is unalterably transformed. He now rejects any worship which is limited to the recognition of His power and might. Post-Revelation, religious devotion must also express “the moral submission of the whole of the human being to His law, the Torah.” (ibid) Simply worshiping Hashem is no longer enough. Man must now recognize Hashem’s will and become a partner in the creation of sanctity through loyal obedience to Divine Law.

Bearing all of the above in mind, today, there are no more bamahs, asheirot or matzeivot. And we lack our Mizbeiyach for we have missed our Beit HaMikdash for nearly two millennia. We are still mandated to recognize the Will of Hashem and to serve and partner with Him through observing His Divine Law.

We are mandated, as always, to stand as an Iv’ri, “on the other side,” against today’s apparent iterations of Avodah Zora and its vessels: abortion “rights,” i.e. the so-called right of women’s freedom regarding their person, [with the one exception being where pregnant woman’s life is at risk], bogus woke’ism [adjective, Slang.(often used in the phrase stay woke) having or marked by an active awareness of systemic injustices and prejudices, especially those related to civil and human rights] i.e. antifa and “black lives matter” re: racial inequity and retroactive compensation, gender-fluidity [adjective noting or relating to a person whose gender identity or gender expression is not fixed and shifts over time or changes depending on the situation] as illustrated in a recent Israel National News Op-ed: Gender madness coming to Israel?, So-called “climate-change,” Environmental, Social, and Governance Scores and Global “Reset,” also described as “Equity,” compulsory vaccines and masking and more.

Rabbi Goldin concludes (ibid, page 182):

…The shift to a post-matzeivah world becomes much more than technical avoidance of the idolatrous practices of others. Instead, through the powerful use of ritual-related symbols, the Torah underscores the step-by-step development of man’s relationship with Hashem. While it was once enough to worship Hashem, man must now go a step further and partner with the Divine.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them, that the thrice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes and the oft-destroyed Yeshiva buildings in Homesh be rebuilt, all at total government expense; due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. Baruch Hashem that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard is now free of his parole and restrictions and that he is now in his second year at home in Eretz Yisrael. May Esther Yocheved bat Yechiel Avraham have an aliyah in Shemayim and may her memory continue to lift Jonathan to at least 120 years. May the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of eight years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. And may we soon and finally see the total end to the Communist Chinese corona virus pandemic and all like viruses. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nei Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.