Rabbi Stanton Zamek
United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong
I must begin with a confession. I have a thing about rocks. My eyes are naturally drawn to "interesting" stones on the ground. When I travel I gather them like relics. Despite my family’s eye-rolling, I have constructed small cairns in our flat and in my office at shul, made up of collected chunks of the geological history of the American Southwest. There are pieces of Eretz Yisrael scattered around my computer as I write.
The unspeakable age of these natural objects captivates me. Measured against the human time scale, they have permanence. The small, gray pebble that I plucked from a creek bed is my master-- it existed eons before me, it will exist eons after me. If it were sentient, as many rocks seem to me to be, my life would be a nanosecond flash to it, unworthy of notice. Running my fingers over the rough surface of the chunk of sandstone on top of the tottering pile of papers on my desk, I touch time itself and I am given a hint of the meaning of Eternity.
Having said this, it will be clear why this particular passage from Parashat Ki Tavo grabbed me:
As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Teaching.
It would be an incredible sight, this Stonhenge of Torah. Who wouldn't be moved to worship at such a place? How appropriate that the end of the wilderness period is marked by offerings at a wilderness shrine-- a mountain top, studded with menhirs, standing stones, and an altar made from unshaped, natural rock.
It is this rustic altar that most intrigues me. This is a simple structure. Any of us, had we been there, could have been part of fulfilling this Divine command:
There, too, you shall build an altar to the LORD your God, an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them; you must build the altar of the LORD your God of unhewn stones.
Ki Tavo is not the only place we see this prohibition against shaping the stones used in building an altar. In Exodus 20, just after the pronouncement of the Ten Commandments, we read:
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.
This verse is more pointed than our verse in Ki Tavo. Not only is shaping the stones prohibited, but striking them with a hammer or chisel is an act of profanation.
The prohibition is clear, but not the message. How can such an ordinary act of masonry construction constitute defilement?
Rashi, following the Rabbis, sees cutting the altar stones as an inadmissible act of symbolic violence:
Hence you have learned that if you have brandished iron over it you have defiled it, because the altar was created to lengthen a person's life and iron was created to shorten a person's life. It is not right that what shortens should be brandished over what lengthens. Furthermore, the altar makes peace between Israel and God, therefore, that which cuts and injures should not come against it.
Rashbam argues that the use of unhewn stones prevents the builders from embellishing the altar stones. In his view it is a small step from shaping a stone to engraving prohibited images on it.
In different ways, both commentators can be seen as warning against trying to improve upon Creation. The world as it is given is tov, as the opening chapter of Bereishit repeatedly reminds us. In our haste to change it, to hammer it into shapes that are useful and pleasing to us, we often are vandals rather than builders. Ki Tavo suggests a gentler relationship with the earth. The building of this holy place must be done in concert with nature, by means of a peaceful act of gathering.
This altar of unhewn stones is an image we should contemplate often. It is a useful counterpoint to the heavy-handed, destructive way we normally manipulate the world and its resources. We should remember too that "cherev,” the word used in the Exodus passage to mean "tool,” also means "sword."
Even ungathered, lying where the force of water, wind, or upheaval deep within the earth have placed them, stones have an aura of holiness. Their beauty and the taste of eternity they offer are embodied in their irregularity, testimony to a history beyond imagining. Each stone, with no hand but God's to shape it, perfectly fits into the altar that is all of Existence. As does every creature that lives. As do we.
Next time you see an interesting rock as you walk on the beach or in the park, stop and pick it up. Hold it and remember a time when we served our God on an altar built of the raw rock that happened to be on hand. Contemplate the teaching of unhewn stones as you roll a bit of the solidified eons in your hand.