Monument and Altar

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein





Parashat vayishlach




Monument and Altar


Adapted by Binyamin Frankel

Translated by Kaeren Fish



In Parashat Vayetze we read of Yaakov’s promise, on the eve of his departure from the Land of Israel, to set up a monument (matzeva) to God.  In this week’s parasha, when Yaakov reaches Beit-El, following his encounter with Esav, the text (35:6-7) tells us that he built an altar (mizbeach).  Later on in the parasha (35:14), he also builds a matzeva.  What are we to make of this?


The simplest explanation is that Yaakov set up both a matzeva and a mizbeach.  The matzeva was in fulfillment of his promise, while the mizbeach was a token of his gratitude, over and above his original promise.  However, the question remains why Yaakov found it necessary to create both structures.


The Rishonim (Rambam, Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 6:6; Rashi in Parashat Re’eh) explain that the difference between a mizbeach and a matzeva lies in the purpose of the construction, as well as the raw materials used.  A matzeva is made of one large rock, and its purpose is for libations, while a mizbeach is a far more impressive structure, composed of many stones, and its purpose is to offer up animal sacrifices.


When Yaakov leaves home, he has nothing.  He can build only a simple matzeva for God.  His request is likewise simple: “Give me bread to eat and a garment to wear” (28:20).  However, when returning to the Land of Israel after years of service to Lavan, Yaakov is wealthy and he seeks to show his thanks to God accordingly, with a greater and more significant investment.


However, Chazal express criticism of Yaakov specifically concerning this new status, which leads him to boastfulness.  The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 79:10) interprets the verse, “And he called [the altar] El Elo-hei Yisrael” (33:20), as meaning that “Elo-hei Yisrael called Yaakov ‘El.’” Yaakov said to God, “You are Lord of the upper worlds; I am lord of the lower world.” Of course, it is difficult to suggest that Yaakov considered himself a lord alongside God.  Apparently, the word “elohim” is meant here as it is used in Parashat Mishpatim: Yaakov considered himself the judge of all the land.


Responding to this feeling, God hints to Yaakov that this perception of reality is inaccurate.  From this point onwards, Yaakov suffers one blow after the next.  First there is the rape of Dina, following which we read that Yaakov “held his silence until they [his sons] returned” (34:5).  Seemingly, this represents a pedagogic example of self-restraint.  However, it may also be viewed as a response of weakness and fear on Yaakov’s part.  Clearly, the appropriate response (at least on the emotional level, without addressing the issue of whether the subsequent action was justified) is, “They were very angry, for he (Shekhem) had done a disgraceful thing in Israel, to lie with the daughter of Yaakov, for such a thing ought not be done” (34:7). 


Similarly, after the revenge of Shimon and Levi, Yaakov chastises them with an pragmatic argument, which expresses his fear: “You have brought trouble upon me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizites.  For I am few in number, and they will gather against me and slay me, and I shall be destroyed – I and my household” (34:30).


In contrast, his sons Shimon and Levi are depicted here as taking a courageous and ideological stand: “Shall he make our sister like a harlot?!” (34:31).


The same situation is reflected in the fact that while his father is still alive, Reuven takes Bilha, Yaakov’s concubine (35:22).  As we see in the later example of Avshalom taking the concubine of David, this act represents a hint to the older generation that its term has come to an end.  Even if we accept the milder midrashic interpretation of the act (namely, that Reuven merely moved Yaakov’s bed), the fact remains that even in his own bedroom, Yaakov no longer feels himself to be in control.


By building the matzeva after the mizbeach, Yaakov shows that he recognizes that God remains Sovereign, while Yaakov himself is not “king of the world.”


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Vayishlach 5769 [2008].)