Altars Are Not Green1
You shall not plant an Asherah-tree – nor any tree – next to the altar of
Hashem your G-d, which you make for yourself.
Who could object to decorating the altar with some of the natural beauty of
G-d’s creation? Besides adding some esthetically pleasing accents to the
otherwise stark, stony expanse of the main altar, reminding us about
Hashem’s role as Master of Nature would seem to do us some good.
Clearly, the Torah feels otherwise – and with good reason. The worship of
the G-d of Nature falls so far short of the Jewish mission, that the Torah
bans it altogether.
The Asherah did not simply add a bit of green enhancement to a proper
understanding of Hashem. The Asherah limited and distorted that
understanding. It boxed G-d into Creation, into the physical and palpable
world. Pagan gods were inseparable from forces of Nature. Their rule, their
kingdoms, their spheres of influence were limited to the display of those
forces within the world around, often pitting one god/force against another.
Humans paid homage to these gods, hoping to tap into their physical power
for some favor or gain. The word Asherah comes from the word asher, to make
fulfilled or thrive. You tended to the Asherah planted in honor of a
particular god. Your care made the tree flourish and thrive. In recognition
of the honor you showed it, its god helped you out with some special
assistance, placing some natural force at your disposal.
Such an approach is a primitive pantheism, seeing G-d everywhere in the
physical universe, and nowhere else. The moral realm remains untouched by
the gods, who have no interest in the inner refinement of puny ungodly Man.
The Torah abhors this way of conceiving and serving G-d. The service of
Hashem requires us to subjugate our inner lives to Him, to extend His
influence to controlling our wants and desires, and the development of our
character and personalities. We approach the physical world guided by His
instruction, not armed by His power. Only when we introduce His Will to the
moral sphere, when we respond to it and change our inner selves, have we
accomplished anything of value. With it, we have done everything; without
it, we have done nothing. Only one pasuk earlier, the Torah laid down
the great principle of tzedek, tzedeh tirdof – you will surely and
assiduously pursue righteousness. Banning the Ashereh means focusing upon
the power that recognizing Him should kindle within us, and not upon the
power of G-d in the natural world. It is logical extension of the mitzvah
of pursuing righteousness.
Chazal recognized the impulse to find G-d within Nature (an impulse which
grows in popularity in the countries in which we live). They understood the
danger that this impulse could easily lead people to worship the G-d of
Nature rather than the G-d of morality. They went so far as to buttress the
prohibition against planting Asherah trees by banning any kind of wooden
structure surrounding the altar.
The next pasuk further distances ourselves from focusing upon the G-d of
Nature. It prohibits using stone monuments to worship Hashem. It tells us
that Hashem, as it were, “hates” such monuments.
This is puzzling. Our holy patriarchs made good use of these matzevos. It is
difficult enough to understand why Hashem would end a practice that served
us well in the first generations of our peoplehood. It is much harder to
comprehend why the cherished service of the Fathers becomes detested when
practiced by the sons.
Yet, the idea that we have developed explains the shift admirably. In a
world populated by pagan Nature-worshippers, the first order of business was
to place all of Nature under the rule of a single Deity, bringing all the
diversity and disunity under the direction of the One G-d, rather than the
resultant of the turf battles between spoiled dysfunctional gods.
The stone monument was a perfect place to reject the pagan theology. The
matzevah was nothing more than an outcropping of rock, a piece of G-d’s
creation that struck a human observer as interesting. It reminded the person
of the Power of G-d in creation, and was the appropriate platform upon which
to declare that the One G-d was responsible for all of Nature, not a gaggle
of them. There was room for the matzevah alongside the altar, the mizbeach.
Indeed, the avos used both.
Prior to the creation of a Jewish people, the service of G-d was limited.
There was no large group, ready to take G-d consciousness, and live a
national life so guided by His Will, that it paid homage to Him. The service
of G-d, at least insofar as the message that it conveyed to the world at
large, sought to convey the idea that there was a single G-d of Nature, and
in the continuing unfolding of Nature in history. This is what the avos did,
and why they frequently made use of the matzevah.
This all changed with the birth of the Jewish nation, and with its receiving
its charter at Sinai. Now, the first phase had come to an end. G-d could be,
and had to be, recognized for His mastery of our inner lives. This would
come about chiefly through human activity, through changing our behavior at
every juncture of life. Altars are not found in the natural world as are
matzevos. They are built by human hands, placing stone on top of stone.
From this point on, any service of G-d that found Him to be the Master of
Nature, but did not make Him Master of our inner lives, and hence our
behavior, would be unacceptable. Moreover, it would be fully hated. The old
matzevah has been replaced by the consciousness of the Oneness of Hashem
that was one of the most important contributions Klal Yisrael has made to
date to the civilized world. The next great contribution - showing how an
entire people can invoke that consciousness to make their thoughts and
behavior more G-d-like in a host of different countries, vocations, and
circumstances – still remains to be perfectly conveyed. It is part of the
importance of the altar.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Devarim 16:21-22
2. Devarim 16:21
3. Devarim 16:20
4. Ramban, Avodah Zarah, 6:10
5. Furthermore, this Unity was something that Avraham discovered, according
to Chazal, within Nature. He sensed the Designer from within the design, and
understood the unity of a world that was a refraction of the Unity of its