"Even though our ancestors used these pillars, they became abhorred because others started using them for ungodly purposes." — Rashi. * On the first reading of Parshas R'ei.
Change is a constant in life. As time goes by, we see things change all around us. One example of this is the story of the matzevah from the Torah. The matzevah was once a beloved form of worship, but over time it was banned. So, what caused this change?
Let’s go back in time to when our ancestors lived. Imagine Jacob, alone in the wilderness with nothing but the sky above him. He used a stone as a pillow and had a dream where he met God. When he woke up, he was amazed and grateful. He took the stone he had used as a pillow and set it up as a matzevah to mark this special moment. Genesis 28:18 tells us: “And Jacob… took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar (matzevah), and poured oil upon the top of it.”
Rashi explains what this means: “In his gratitude, he erected a monument, a testament to God’s protection and the promises bestowed upon him.”
But later on, we see that the use of matzevahs was no longer allowed. Deuteronomy 16:22 says: “Neither shall you set up a pillar (matzevah), which the Lord your God hates.”
Rashi understands why this change happened as follows: “What was once cherished by God during the era of our Patriarchs became detestable, as idolaters appropriated it for their rituals.”
So, the big question is: How did the matzevah go from being loved by God to being hated?
There are several possible explanations for this change:
1. Worship changed from being individual to being communal: Our ancestors had personal experiences with God. They had moments of deep thinking and revelation. But when we became a nation at Sinai, things changed. Deuteronomy 27:5-6 tells us: “And there, you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones…” This altar was made of many stones, each representing a person. Together, they formed a united nation.
2. There was a danger from outside influences: Our ancestors were often isolated from other cultures. Their faith was pure and not influenced by others. But when we were about to enter Canaan, things changed again. We had new neighbors with different customs and beliefs. Leviticus 26:1 warns us: “You shall not make idols… neither shall you set up a… pillar for yourselves…” This was to protect us from being tempted by foreign practices.
3. Halacha is flexible: Our tradition is alive and always changing to meet the needs of each generation. The Talmud in Brachot 28b shows us an example of this: “With the deposition of Rabban Gamliel… the study hall’s doors were thrown open.” Halacha adapts over time to make sure its wisdom is always accessible and relevant.
4. Our spirituality evolved: The Zohar and other Kabbalistic writings talk about how our souls have changed over time. Our ancestors had deep connections with God that formed the foundation of our faith. But as time went on, our ways of connecting with God changed too. The single stone of the past gave way to bigger buildings that represented the spiritual growth of our whole nation.
The story of how the matzevah went from being loved to being banned is like our own spiritual journey. It shows us how important it is to balance our personal experiences with our responsibilities as a group. Our tradition is rooted in history but also changes with the times. As we combine our personal depth with our collective purpose, may our spiritual legacy continue to shine brightly.