Throughout Sefer Bereshit we find many occasions in which our holy Avot express their fears, hopes and gratitude towards G-d through the medium of sacrifice, offered upon a מצבה, which was the central means of religious ritual at the time.
However we learn from Chazal that although in the time of the Avot offering a korban upon a מצבה was a beloved form of service in the eyes of G-d, it was forbidden after the torah was given. From Matan Torah onwards, sacrifices may only be offered on a מזבח.
The obvious question that arises is what is the difference between aמצבה and a מזבח, and what is the reason for G-d’s extreme change of mind which results in forbidding an act that He once loved. On a technical level, the difference between the two forms of alter is that a מצבה is one stone, as found in nature, that man simply sets up into position. The word מצבה itself carries this meaning and is named after its main attribute – the fact that it’s standing up. A מזבח assembled from several smaller rocks and stones is by definition the opposite. Man’s role in creating a mizbaech is much more integral due to the fact that he must collect, design, and build this alter. This technical difference leads to a linguistic difference, as the Torah uses different verbs in describing the action of preparing a מצבה and aמזבח. In reference to a מצבה the Torah always uses the verbs ויקם or ויצב – to set up or put up, whereas in respect to a מזבח the Torah always uses the appropriate verb ויבן – to build.
Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch suggests that these physical ways to connect to G-d represent two different models of Avodat Hashem. The מצבה represents a basic and primal form of Avodas Hashem, in which man is mostly passive and merely responds to the will of Hashem. This type of service was appropriate in the early stages of the world’s religious development. After the giving of the Torah Hashem expects a higher level of Avodah, one in which we are no longer passive and responsive rather active partners in the continuous spiritual development of the world. This idea is expressed through the usage of a מזבח, in which man both designs and assembles his own personal vehicle to connect with G-d. Rav Hirsch further explains, that based on this idea we can understand a linguistic mystery that appears in this week’s parasha. As explained above, the Torah uses different verbs for each type of alter. However the one exception to this rule is Yaakov Avinu’s return to Eretz Yisroel after living with Lavan. In this context the Torah mentions that Yaakov Avinu, upon his return, sets up a mizbeach – ויצב מזבח””. Although this was still many years before Matan Torah, Yaakov Avinu had reached a significant milestone in the early development of עם ישראל – arriving in Eretz Yisroel with the people of Hashem in the land of Avodas Hashem. This was the beginning of the transition to a higher and more active form of worship and relating to G-d. It was at this point that the seeds were planted for the future transition to a higher and more active form of worship, a transition that is expressed through the linguistic progression from ויצב to מזבח, from one single tombstone-like alter to a million stone milestone of life filled with building and creating.
As we work on our relationship with Hashem in our year in Israel, one of the most central and essential parts of our growth is precisely this transition. Beginning the year relatively passive in our approach to serving G-d, imitating our parents, teachers and Rebbeim, through our personal Matan Torah and ascent to Israel in form of the Seminary experience, it is our duty to evolve and transform ourselves into higher beings, each and every one of us developing our own unique model of Avodas Hashem, building our own custom made alter.
Student Studying in MMY