The drama that builds up in this week’s parsha is fascinating. From the moment that Am Yisrael reach Har Sinai, we are led, step by step, through the preparations for receiving the Torah. This climaxes in the Aseret Hadibrot themselves. As we read this part in Bet Knesset the general custom is to stand, signifying the importance that we assign to this special section (The custom is discussed by many in light of the “discrimination” that it assumes between these pesukim and any other part of the Torah, and many compromise positions have been suggested).
As the congregation sits down they assume that “Matan Torah” is finished and we now move on to the next part. In truth, this is not the case at all. Matan Torah has only just begun, and its conclusion is in the end of next week’s Parsha, Mishpatim. The series of Halachot that follow the Asseret Hadibrot constitute an integral part of Matan Torah.
At the end of our Parsha we are presented with three halachot after the Decalogue:
1. Not to make idols.
2. Not to use hewn stones for the Mizbeach.
3. Not to make a stairway to the Mizbeach in order not to expose oneself while approaching it.
There is no indication on the Torah as to why these mitzvoth are mentioned here, nor is there any clear common denominator between them. The commentaries, for the most part, grapple with the individual explanation of each mitzvah without integrating them into a complete unit.
The Rambam offers a strange explanation for the prohibition against hewn stones by suggesting that the purpose is to avoid engraving images on the stones, which would seem to be an outgrowth of idol worship. I imagine that the Rambam was trying to find the common denominator between these mitzvoth, and felt that they were all linked to veering Am Yisrael away from pagan practices in the sacrificial realm. A similar explanation may be used concerning the prohibition concerning steps on the mizbeach, where we are trying to avoid any sexual connotation lent to the avodah and the mizbeach; a practice seemingly not foreign to many other religions. (See the Rambam’s list of mitzvoth in his introduction to Hilchot Avoda Zara where he lists a plethora of seemingly unrelated mitzvoth and describes them all as being in contradistinction to the pagan practices at the time).
The Ibn Ezra rejects the interpretation of the Rambam pointing out, almost sarcastically, that we would have a very difficult time using the Rambam’s position on one hand, while we learn about many other elements of the Mishkan on the other; the Cruvim for example.
The more familiar explanation given for the hewn stones is that offered by Rashi:
“…for the altar was created to lengthen the days of man and iron was created to shorten the days of man. It is not right that that which shortens life should be lifted up against that which lengthens.”
According to Rashi, this prohibition is not a polemic, but rather it is an absolute statement of values. We are not to associate the mizbeach with a tool of destruction.
If we view the end of the Parsha with this Rashi in mind, I think that we find a very interesting list of mitzvoth. All three mitzvoth that follow the Aseret Hadibrot are concerned with the Mikdash and each one stresses a particular value that we are unwilling to tolerate in the service of God.
We are unwilling to accept multiple deities or idolatry of any form.
We are unwilling to accept stones tainted by a murderous weapon.
We are unwilling to accept one who will express immodest behavior on the mizbeach.
The list, as composed above, is a direct mirror image of the three cardinal sins for which one must give up their lives rather than transgress.
If our analysis is true, then it would make sense why they are mentioned here. Our Parsha contains the Aseret Hadibrot that are to represent the basic tenets and values of Judaism. The Ramban explains that these ten mitzvoth are general categories within which all other mitzvoth can be classified (albeit the taxonomy is a bit stretched at times).
If we are being given a list of the most central issues in Judaism, it would be natural to reserve a special place for pointing out the cardinal sins that exact the most ultimate sacrifice from the Jew.
I would like to make one further point- I think that we should note how far the Torah takes these prohibitions. Had the Torah simply said “Don’t kill in order to serve Me” or “Sexuality is not part of My service”, the above points would have been made. In fact, the Torah goes much further than that. We are not allowed to use a rock that was touched by iron. We are not talking about a situation in which a murder actually took place but rather a very loose connection between the stones and the material from which weapons are also made!! This is very extreme.
The same goes for the prohibition against stairs. What is described is not sexual misconduct. The Cohen is not to use stairs because he may inadvertently expose parts of his body that should not be exposed. Rashi already points out that in any event he would not be exposed as his garments fully covered him and this is a prohibition against “taking a wide step which is close to “gilui erva””.
I venture to say that not even the most extreme zealots in the realm of modest dress (of any religion) have banned staircases!! (I hope that I have not given anyone any ideas).
What we are being taught here is a very fundamental concept. The construction of the mizbeach and its subsequent use had to be pure beyond all purity. Even the slightest associative connection with any of these cardinal sins must be avoided. The mizbeach represents, and functions as, the connection with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. We cannot afford anything but perfection in this realm.