Here we are in the middle of Elul. Hurricane Harvey recently wreaked havoc in Texas. Hurricane Irma is wreaking havoc in the Caribbean and is heading for Florida. Mexico just suffered a huge earthquake. North Korea is rattling sabers again. Our country is more divided than it has ever been, even in the midst of these disasters (though the disasters have brought out the best in people, as they often do.) In this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, is a recitation of the most horrendous calamities – a literal catalog of calamities. Cleverly, the rabbis connected a haftarah from Isaiah with an uplifting and positive message to rise and shine. This parasha has inspired in me a reflection upon how we engage in behavior modification. It has caused me to reflect, like Naomi Shemer, on the the bitter and the sweet, on all these things. This year, I wanted to circle back to a musing from a decade ago.
Our parasha, Ki Tavo, is rich with things to exegete. Blessings and curses, sins committed in secret, the “My father was a fugitive Aramean…” recitation of the first fruits ceremony and tithes, the conclusion of the covenanting in Moab. The blessings and curses alone could occupy one for an entire lifetime of consideration. I commend it all to you.
What struck me this week as I was reading the parasha was the instructions for erecting stones on Mt. Ebal on which the text of the Torah were to be inscribed, and then the building of an altar of stone. (I’m trying to imagine two large stones onto which the entire text of the Torah is carved, and I’m failing, though I suppose it’s possible. It would take a lot of time, and rather small letters. Perhaps this is something I’ll explore in a future musing.) Paralleling the instructions in Ex. 20:22, the Israelites are told that iron tools are not to be used in constructing the altar-the altar is to be built of natural, whole stones. (It’s not entirely clear if the two large stones onto which the text of Torah is carved had to be of unhewn stones, and if the engraving into the plaster had to be done without the use of an iron tool as well. Again, more fodder for a future musing.)
Why unhewn stones? Consider some connections. Jacob dreamed while his head was on a whole stone “pillow.” The patriarchs set up stones as markers and altars. People are punished by stoning. Moshe struck a rock to bring forth water (when all he needed to do, according to G”d, was speak to the stone.)The tower of Babel was made of bricks – a sort of artificial stone. The many labors in which the Israelites engaged when enslaved in Egypt may have involved the use of hewn stones (though I hasten to remind us that we were forced to build storehouses, not pyramids. So hewn stone has some negative associations. Hewn stone can also have positive connotations. Hewn stones are civilized, uncut/natural stones are earthy.
The altar in Solomon’s Temple may (or may not) have built with unhewn stones. It’s not entirely clear, though it is likely the basic understructure was built to biblical specifications. It was all covered in brass, so while it may have sat atop uncut stones, it was a more ornate affair (unlike the one which Joshua erected, after the Israelites came into Israel, which was made of unhewn stones.) The altar in the second Temple was square in shape, and also ornate. When the Hasmoneans restored the second Temple after Antiochus IV Epiphanes has desecrated it with idols, it is said that the defiled altar’s stones were replaced with new unhewn stones. (The old, defiled stones were left on the Temple mount because, defiled as they were, they were still sanctified. In I Maccabees chapter 4, it says the stones should remain on holy ground until a prophet would come along and say what should be done with them.) So the altar may have been square, but its core was of unhewn stone.
We Jews have a long history of workarounds for difficult Biblical restrictions (and we compiled them into what we now call Halacha.) To get around the restriction that the altar could not utilize steps lest a person’s nakedness be exposed while they were walking up to it, the first and second Temple used ramps. The question we must ask ourselves is whether keeping the altar at a lower, reachable height for the average human being might have been a more appropriate solution than raising up the altar and using a ramp to reach it. Similarly, are adorning an altar of unhewn stone with brass, or building a structure of hewn stone around the uncut stone at the center and appropriate interpretation of G”ds instructions on how to build the altar? There is much to consider, and even more so in our own time. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Natural, whole, unhewn stones. At first, it may seem an odd choice. Surely G”d’s altar should be a magnificent structure, finely constructed, polished and ornamented. After all, we are taught that our sacrifices must be taken from the best, the finest of our flocks, our harvest, etc. We take our cream of the crop and offer it up to G”d. (That certainly seems to be the spin the Solomon and the rulers of Israel used to justify the ornate altar in the Temple.) Yet G”d says we must offer up our sacrifices upon a crude altar.
Why this odd juxtaposition? Does the crudeness of the altar signify the necessarily crude and cruel act of killing an animal? Does it signify the raw, natural state of the act of sacrifice? Does it, as Martin Buber suggests, teach us that G”d prefers the natural prayers of the heart to the more formal, structured prayer?
Though I do tend to favor Buber’s understanding, I cannot be certain it is the true understanding of the meaning of building the altar of uncut stones. Nevertheless, I do find myself wondering what our modern equivalent to honor this commandment might be. Are our altars made roughly? Hardly. Most of our synagogues are ornate, polished, finely detailed and built structures, with bimahs to match. The words of the Torah, instead of being etched or written on plaster atop large stones, and painstakingly and ornately scribed onto parchment. We cover our Torahs with beautiful adornments.
Perhaps it is this very ornate and structured environment that causes us to be less than forthcoming with our very deepest prayers, and prayers that are the equivalent of the sacrifices of our finest animals, fruits, etc. Where, in our Jewish tradition, is the earthy manger of the Christian tradition? Do we purposefully and deliberately distance ourselves from the earthiness of a crude altar upon which blood is spattered, and animals and other items are burnt as sacrifices.Perhaps we need to recreate this very natural and crude state in our own sanctuaries.Perhaps our bimahs should be rustic.
Perhaps we should have less comfortable chairs in our synagogues – maybe we should sit on natural stones, or tree stumps. (I know from experience that worship in such natural settings as are often found in Jewish camps can be very powerful.) Maybe the floors should be of natural stones? Or even dirt. That might get us a little closer to the idea. We might place simple furniture on our bimahs, place plain covers over our Torahs, and generally avoid ostentation in our sanctuaries.
What was it that drove our ancestors to place a simple stone altar inside a huge, ornate structure? They claim it was to honor G”d, but I suspect showing off had a lot more to do with it. How shall we build and house our altars?
I guess it all depends on what we determine is our “altar.” If our prayers, our words, are the substitutes for the sacrifices, upon what natural altar shall we offer them up?
Perhaps we, ourselves, are the altar. So perhaps we need to be what is “natural.” (Maybe we should pray in the nude?)
A look back at the Hebrew yields what might be a clue. What we translate as natural, uncut, or un-hewn stone are the words
literally, “whole stones” (or “complete stones,” thus the “uncut,” “unhewn,” or “natural” translations.)
Does this teach us that when we are not whole, when we are not complete, that we are unfit altars upon which to offer the sacrifices of our lips? Yet so many of us are not whole, not complete, and it is for this very wholeness or completeness for which we pray. So I come back to the translation “natural.” Perhaps it just means that we need to just be who we are, in order to be the proper altar upon which to offer the sacrifices of our lips. We must be an uncut stone. No frippery or finery. No suits or ties. Just the clothes we would normally wear, the attitudes and mannerisms we might normally have.
All the finest trappings won’t make our prayers better. Being ourselves is what makes us fit altars.
When you pray, be an uncut, whole, natural stone. Be yourself.
©2017 (portions ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Ki Tavo 5775 – Rise and Shine (Redux 5761)
Ki Tavo 5774 – They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To
Ki Tavo 5773 – Catalog of Calamities (Redux and Greatly Revised 5760)
Ki Tavo 5772 – Mi Yitein Erev? Mi Yitein Boker?
Ki Tavo 5771 – Curse This Parasha!
Ki Tavo 5769 – If It Walks and Talks Like a Creed…
Ki Tavo 5767 – Uncut Stones
Ki Tavo 5764-Al Kol Eileh (in memory of Naomi Shemer, z”l)
Ki Tavo 5763–Still Getting Away With It?
Ki Tavo 5760–Catalog of Calamities
Ki Tavo 5761–Rise & Shine
Ki Tavo 5762–Al Kol Eileh