Pillars and Altars
The Torah portion contains, as does so much of Sefer Devarim, many warnings against idolatry and emulating the nefarious practices of the indigenous population of Eretz Yisrael. One of these prohibitions will be the subject of our enquiry:
Do not erect for yourself a matzeivah [idolatrous pillar], which the Lord your God hates. (Devarim 16:22)
Do not erect for yourself a pillar - a single pillar of stone on which to bring offerings, even to heaven.
Which God hates - He commanded you to make an altar of stones and an altar of earth, but this He hates, for it was an observance of the Canaanites. Even though it was beloved in the time of the Avos, now it is hated, since it they made it into an idolatrous observance. (Rashi loc. cit.)
Rashi refers to the fact that Yaakov erected several such pillars, and we may assume that God approved of his actions. The Ramban notes a difficulty with this issue:
I don't understand this statute, for the Canaanites erected both pillars and altars... [Both pillars and altars should have been prohibited.] (Ramban loc. cit.)
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ALTARS AND PILLARS
If we delve carefully, we will discover a great conceptual difference between the altar, which is made of several stones, and the pillar, which is made of one. We will begin by considering the altar which Eliyahu constructed:
Eliyahu took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Yaakov, to whom the word of God came, saying, "Yisrael shall be your name." He built from the stones an altar in the name of God... (Melachim I 18:31)
This provides a clear insight into the meaning behind the construction of an altar from several stones. It represents klal Yisrael functioning as one. Each tribe, symbolized by a stone, makes its unique contribution to an integrated, united nation, symbolized by the complete altar. Divine worship, as portrayed by the altar, must contain this synthesis. The individuals must be present, but they must merge into a single, national entity to worship God. In this respect at least, the private individual may not approach God, for without his connection to the national unit, he is disenfranchised. But when all of the members of the nation come together, they have enough power as a community to worship God. This is beautifully symbolized by the twelve stones which Eliyahu built into an altar.
In contrast, a pillar, which is made from one stone, completely fails to symbolize the need for communal unity in Divine worship. Its singularity symbolizes the individual, who, according to our analysis, may not come forward to worship without first uniting with the rest of the nation. Thus the Torah prohibits the erection of a pillar, for it fosters a false view of Divine service, but encourages the use of altars made from several stones, which symbolize a nation comprising individuals worshiping God.
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THE PILLAR IN EARLIER TIMES
This explains the basic prohibition, but we still need to investigate why it was permissible for the Avos to construct pillars. Before Yisrael became a nation, the Avos were the whole of klal Yisrael in microcosm. Each of the three was the torchbearer for monotheism. They were exceptional people who exemplified the message which the Torah and its adherents, klal Yisrael, would bring to the world. Although they were individuals, they personified the values and qualities of an entire nation. Let us adduce several proofs for this concept:
Avraham was one, yet he inherited the land; we are many, and to us the land is given as an inheritance. (Yechezkel 33:24)
Avraham is the one who inherited the land, just as the whole nation was destined to do so. And behold, all of the souls which came out of the loins of Yaakov were seventy soul... (Shemos 1:5)
We note that the seventy descendants of Yaakov are described as just one soul, for Yaakov contained all of the elements of the nation which would generate from him.
Just as the verse says about God, ... and God alone shall be exalted on that day (Yeshayahu 2:17), so too about Yaakov it says, Yaakov was left alone... (Bereishis 32:25). (Bereishis Rabbah 77:1)
This is another proof that Yaakov was considered a single, complete being, similar (of course, only in some limited respect) to the unity and all-inclusiveness of God Himself.
We may thus suggest an explanation for the permissibility of the pillar in the times of the Avos. The Avos, as individuals, were a complete nation in themselves. It was thus entirely appropriate for them to offer sacrifices upon, and to worship at, pillars. The single stone of the pillar expresses the service of the individual, which in their case was synonymous with the nation. This helps us to understand why the Canaanites chose the pillar as a means of idolatrous service. Idolaters by definition have no communal unity. They are merely a rabble of selfish individuals worshipping their idols. As such, the pillar, the symbol of personal devotion, is well suited to their needs. In contrast to the seventy "soul" of Yaakov, we find that:
Eisav took his wives and his sons and his daughters and all the souls of his house... (Bereishis 36:6)
Even within his own household, Esav did not attain any measure of unity. We may see him as the paradigm of the idolater. It is now clear why the pillar was attractive to the idolater and, although suitable even for Jewish use in the time of the Avos, remains strictly forbidden to us.
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This explanation helps us to understand a difficulty with the following midrash:
There were six steps to ascend to the throne of Shlomo HaMelech... In this parsha there are six prohibitions mentioned... A herald stood before the throne of Shlomo. When he ascended the first step, he announced, Do not pervert justice (Devarim 16:19) [the first of the six prohibitions]... On the fifth, he announced, Do not erect for yourself a pillar (ibid., 22)... (Devarim Rabbah 5:6)
We may assume that the symbolism which this Chazal tries to convey is that the king, before he may sit upon his throne, must remember that he has to ensure the justice and morality of the nation. While the other prohibitions mentioned here relate to justice and thus to the king's role in a just society, of what relevance is the proscription against erecting a pillar?
The role of the king is to unify the people:
He was king in Yeshurun, when the heads of the people were gathered together, the tribes of Yisrael united. (Devarim 33:5)
Indeed, it is of crucial importance that the king always bear this in mind, for if he fails to do so, he is likely to become proud and arrogant in his relationship with his nation. The king is the focus for klal Yisrael, a product of their communal needs, like the heart within a body:
His heart is the heart of all of klal Yisrael. (Rambam, Yad, Hilchos Melachim 3:6)
Just as the heart has no function without the rest of the organs, so too, the king has no role without the force of his subjects. This is why the herald announced to Shlomo HaMelech the prohibition of making a pillar. The king must always remember that he is not an individual making his own despotic decisions, as symbolized by the pillar; rather, he is a stimulus for communal unity, as represented by the altar.