The Torah in Parashat Shoftim introduces the prohibition against erecting a matzeiva (“monument”), even for sincere religious purposes, because these are “despised” by God (16:22). Rashi comments that although we find that the patriarchs erected matzeivot on a number of occasions, these structures became “despised” once the pagans of Canaan began erecting these structures as part of their worship of idols.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, in his Darash Moshe, elaborates on the meaning of this prohibition, and distinguishes between two kinds of matzeivot. He points to the example of Yaakov, who is told as having built three such structures. When he was fleeing from Canaan, the morning after beholding his famous prophetic dream of the ladder, he took the stone upon which he slept and erected it as a matzeiva, commemorating his prophecy (Bereishit 28:18). Years later, after his return to Canaan, Yaakov received an additional prophecy, and he erected a matzeiva at that location (35:14). These two structures were both built to give honor to God, who spoke to Yaakov at these two locations. But Yaakov also built a much different matzeiva – over the grave of his beloved wife, Rachel (Bereishit 35:20). This matzeiva served to give honor not to the Almighty, but rather to Rachel. Rav Moshe noted that the matzeivot which God forbids here in Parashat Shoftim are only those which one constructs for His honor. It is permissible to erect a matzeiva to give honor to the deceased, and indeed, it is a commonly accepted practice to erect a matzeiva over a loved one’s grave after burial.
The difference, Rav Moshe proceeds to explain, lies in the fact that a matzeiva serves to eternalize the past. When it comes to our relationship with God, the past does not determine our status in the future. Erecting a matzeiva to God memorializes our past devotion to Him, but our past devotion loses its value if we turn our backs on this past and now choose not to live in God’s service. The only way to memorialize our past devotion to God is by continuing and building upon that devotion. Therefore, building a matzeiva to express our religious commitment is “despised,” because it reflects the mistaken notion that our commitment can be made permanent through a symbol, without sustained, ongoing dedication. It is only when giving honor to a deceased person that a matzeiva is appropriate, because that person can no longer perform mitzvot. Once a person has left this world, we are indeed to erect a matzeiva for that person – to memorialize his or her good deeds so that everyone can learn from them and emulate them. But during our lifetime, we cannot build a matzeiva to memorialize our noble actions. We must continue working and striving for greatness, without ever assuming that we have done enough and it now suffices to simply remember and reflect upon the actions of our past.