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Unhewn Stones

Part of the fun of studying the Torah seriously is that the text contains a kind of shorthand; the connections between words can contain a wide range of ideas, each of which might be an equally valid way of illustrating the text.

For example, the Torah tells us that we cannot make an altar with hewn stones, with stones that have had iron tools used on them. Which leads to an obvious question: why unhewn, raw stones?

Here are three answers that I have not seen elsewhere:

1: The first time the word for “stone” is found in the Torah is when Jacob, with night falling, decides to sleep. He finds some stones. He chose one, and went to sleep, during which he dreamed of angels ascending and descending on a ladder.

The connection is simple enough: the altar is a remembrance of those first stones, a place where there was connection up and down from heaven to earth. When Jacob woke, he swore fealty to G-d, which would suggest that when we use an altar, we are similarly strengthening our connection to G-d. So we use the same kinds of stones Jacob did.

2: An offering is a reminder that we are to elevate the physical into the spiritual, sort of like adding energy to matter. An offering contains all these elements: an altar (representing raw earth), the offering and our will, representing man’s involvement and investment, and the smoke and fire, connecting ever-upward in our elevation-offering. Earth, man’s offering, and fire.

As such, the altar cannot represent the raw earth unless its elements have not been assembled with man-made tools. Using a cut stone would blur the distinctions, eliminating the clarity of the process.

3: The commandment to make an altar of unhewn stones is in Deut. 27, immediately after a reminder to keep all of G-d’s commandments. The connection is important. We sometimes think that our own expertise and capabilities make us wise. They do not. Technology makes us capable, but it gives us no direction on how to apply those capabilities. Advanced technology can be used to cure cancer, or power the gas chambers.

The Torah encourages our own creations, but we should never be confused into thinking that wisdom and guidance is of our own making. The laws are NOT from man. They are from G-d. So when we build an altar to connect with our origin and our Creator, we must not include physical elements that suggest that the altar is really man’s idea. This is all a reminder that the words of the Torah do not come from our own intellects, and so are not derived from logical principles from some great thinker. We too easily are swayed by “experts” and “leaders” – Hashem is telling us that the Torah was NOT a product of mankind’s intellect, no matter how brilliant we might be. When we connect to heaven, we are reminded of the wisdom and sanctity of G-d.

[An @iwe and @susanquinn production]

Comments are welcome!