Posts Tagged peace

Yitro: Rough Stones

Copyright 2023 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro 

Copyright 2023 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro 

וְאִם־מִזְבַּ֤ח אֲבָנִים֙ תַּֽעֲשֶׂה־לִּ֔י לֹֽא־תִבְנֶ֥ה אֶתְהֶ֖ן גָּזִ֑ית כִּ֧י חַרְבְּךָ֛ הֵנַ֥פְתָּ עָלֶ֖יהָ וַתְּחַֽלְלֶֽהָ

And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them. (D’varim 20:22) 

I hope everybody had a fruity and sweet Tu B’shvat. This week we’re reading the story of the revelation at Sinai: after the thunder and lighting and smoke and fire, Moshe and the Israelites are told they can make their offerings on simple earthen or stone altars. There’s one caveat: in verse 22 above, it says that if they make an altar of stone, they must not hew the stones with an iron tool. 

Rashi and other commentators quote a famous midrash on this verse, linking iron tools to weapons of war: a place of peace and prayer should not be made with tools that remind us of those made for violence. A few years ago, I wrote about another interpretation in the commentaries: the commandment to use only unhewn stones was about the sufficiency of simplicity in a place of worship. (See more on that here.

This year I noticed a comment from Rashi adding a third interpretation, one that seems especially relevant in these times of often bitter social and political division: 

And a further reason is: because the altar makes peace between Israel and their Heavenly Source, and therefore there should not come upon it anything that cuts and destroys. Now, the following statement follows logically: How is it in the case of stones which cannot see nor hear nor speak? Because they promote peace Scripture ordains, “Thou shalt not lift up against them any iron tool!” Then in the case of one who makes peace between a person and their spouse, between family and family, between a man and his fellow, how much more certain is it that punishment will not come upon him! (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:22:2).

The altar “makes peace” between humans and the Divine because it’s the place where various kinds of offerings are made to atone for sin, give thanks and celebrate wholeness and prosperity. The stones are not cut with iron tools so that people are reminded that if even inert rocks are rewarded (by not being hewn) for making peace and effecting reconciliation, how much more so is a person rewarded in the Heavenly realms! 

Jews are a famously fractious bunch, but what if we actively honored the peacemakers among us? What if we refused to let our synagogues and communities be places of exclusion, grudges, ideological conformity, violent speech, political bullying or spiritual snobbery? What if we built communities and societies to be like an altar of unhewn stones: humble places of peace and reconciliation and gratitude, where the values we honor are as obvious as the difference between rough rocks and magnificent masonry? 

I bet we could do it if we tried. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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