Our parasha, Ki Tavo, is rich with things to exegete. Blessings and curses, sins committed in secret, the "My father was a fugitive Aramean..." recitation of the first fruits ceremony and tithes, the conclusion of the covenanting in Moab. The blessings and curses alone could occupy one for an entire lifetime of consideration. I commend it all to you.
What struck me this week as I was reading the parasha was the instructions for erecting stones on Mt. Ebal on which the text of the Torah were to be inscribed, and the building of an altar. As first instructed on Ex. 20:22, the Israelites are told that iron tools are not to be used in constructing the altar-the altar is to be built of natural, whole stones.
At first, it may seem an odd choice. Surely G"d's altar should be a magnificent structure, finely constructed, polished and ornamented. After all, we are taught that our sacrifices must be taken from the best, the finest of our flocks, our harvest, etc. We take our cream of the crop and offer it up to G"d. Yet we offer it up upon a crude altar.
Why this odd juxtaposition? Does the crudeness of the altar signify the necessarily crude and cruel act of killing an animal? Does it signify the raw, natural state of the act of sacrifice? Does it, as Martin Buber suggests, teach us that G"d prefers the natural prayers of the heart to the more formal, structured prayer?
Though I do tend to favor Buber's understanding, I cannot be certain it is the true understanding of the meaning of building the altar of uncut stones. Nevertheless, I do find myself wondering what our modern equivalent to honor this commandment might be. Are our altars made roughly? Hardly. Most of our synagogues are ornate, polished, finely detailed and built structures, with bimahs to match. The words of the Torah, instead of being etched or written on plaster atop large stones, and painstakingly and ornately scribed onto parchment. We cover our Torahs with beautiful adornments.
Perhaps it is this very ornate and structured environment that causes us to be less than forthcoming with our very deepest prayers, and prayers that are the equivalent of the sacrifices of our finest animals, fruits, etc. Where, in our Jewish tradition, is the earthy manger of the Christian tradition? Do we purposefully and deliberately distance ourselves from the earthiness of a crude altar upon which blood is spattered, and animals and other items are burnt as sacrifices.Perhaps we need to recreate this very natural and crude state in our own sanctuaries.Perhaps our bimahs should be rustic.
Perhaps we should have less comfortable chairs in our synagogues - maybe we should sit on natural stones, or tree stumps. Maybe the floors should be of natural stones? That might get us a little closer to the idea.
I guess it all depends on what we determine is our "altar." If our prayers, our words, are the substitutes for the sacrifices, upon what natural altar shall we offer them up?
Perhaps we, ourselves, are the altar. So perhaps we need to be what is "natural." (Maybe we should pray int he nude?)
A look back at the Hebrew yields what might be a clue. What we translate as natural, uncut, or un-hewn stone are the words "avanim sh'leimot," literally, "whole stones" (or "complete stones.") Does this teach us that when we are not whole, when we are not complete, that we are unfit altars upon which to offer the sacrifices of our lips? Yet so many of us are not whole, not complete, and it is for this very wholeness or completeness for which we pray. So I come back to the translation "natural." Perhaps it just means that we need to just be who we are, in order to be the proper altar upon which to offer the sacrifices of our lips. We must be an uncut stone. No frippery or finery. No suits or ties. Just the clothes we would normally wear, the attitudes and mannerisms we might normally have.
All the finest trappings won't make our prayers better. Being ourselves is what makes us fit altars.
When you pray, be an uncut, whole, natural stone. Be yourself.
©2007 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some other musings on this parasha
Ki Tavo 5764-Al Kol Eileh
(in memory of Naomi Shemer, z"l)
Ki Tavo 5763--Still Getting Away With It?
Ki Tavo 5760--Catalog of Calamities
Ki Tavo 5761--Rise & Shine
Ki Tavo 5762--Al Kol Eileh
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