This week I want to talk about a monumental problem:
Why does Yaakov set up this menhir? Some מפרשים say it was just to mark the place:
And in fact he does come back and build an altar:
But note that when he returns, he pours oil on it again, along with a נסך (presumably of wine). So it seems more logical that this מצבה actually had religious significance. And that is the consensus of most מפרשים, including the Ramban and others dedicated to פשט:
He doesn’t build an altar and offer sacrifices originally when making his vow, since he can’t afford it; (בראשית לב:יא) כי במקלי עברתי את הירדן הזה. He just pulled some olive oil out of his lunchbox. On his return, he did it right.
Now Yaakov is certainly good a manipulating big stones:
And he really likes his מצבות:
The problem is that ה׳ doesn’t like מצבות:
What exactly is a מצבה? It’s like a מזבח, a structure for religious עבודה, for offerings of sacrifices or libations, with a crucial difference:
Now there are certainly halachic opinions that all standing stones are forbidden, including tombstones and memorials, but the consensus is that the problem is only with those with religious significance:
So how are we to understand Yaakov’s behavior here? Rashi acknowledges the problem:
But his solution, that מצבות became a Canaanite mode of service and therefore were forbidden, is hard to understand. מזבחות were also used by the Canaanites:
Ramban hypothesizes that the מזבח had a longer history, going back to Adam and Noah, and so was more legitimate.
But there are later authorities who say the problem was not that עבודה זרה changed but that the way that we serve ה׳ changed. The מצבה may have been appropriate in the time of the אבות, but now the symbolism of the מצבה no longer works. Rav Kook connected it to a midrash on our parasha:
Now this seems very parochial (and un-Kookian!) but the idea is that the מצבה would now have to be inside a בית; we no longer advertise, calling out to the nations, but invite those who wish to come inside.
I present this but I have to admit it makes me uncomfortable.
Rav Amital has another approach, based on another midrash. Look at the context of the ban on מצבות:
What’s the connect between establishing courts and judges and banning מצבות? We said on פרשת שפטים that the symbolism of a מצבה is that it is a single stone:
And that symbolism is inherent in the עבודה of a מצבה. Note how it was built when Yaakov made the treaty with Lavan:
So let’s look at that מצבה that Yaakov builds at the beginning of the parasha. In the eyes of the midrash, it wasn’t really a single stone.
When Yaakov builds the מצבה that would become a בית אלקים, it will be the last מצבה. There will be no more בחירה, no more rejection from כנסת ישראל. From now on, the service of ה׳ would be that of an individual but that of a people.