The Torah forbids setting up a pillar (matseivah) as a way to worship HaShem. Instead, one should use an altar (mizbayach) for offerings. The problem arises that the Avot themselves used to use matseivos in their avodas HaShem, so why now does the Torah forbid it?
Rashi explains that at the time the Torah was written, it was common for idol worshippers to use a matseivah in their idol worship, whereas at the time of the Avot, this was not a common practice.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a different explanation. He begins by elucidating the differences between a matseivah and a mizbayach. A matseivah is one stone in its natural form which is a symbol of HaShem’s control over nature. In contrast, a mizbayach comprises of a number of stones that a human assembles into an orderly structure. This symbolizes the idea that man’s purpose is not just to see HaShem in nature, but to subjugate man to HaShem through man’s actions.
With this introduction, Rav Hirsch explains that in the time of the Avot, before the Torah was given, the main purpose of man was to recognize HaShem in the world through nature, but there was no requirement to direct one’s actions to Avodat HaShem because the Torah had not yet been given. HaShem loved these matseivot because they achieved what was required at that time.
However, after the Torah was given, it was insufficient to simply recognize HaShem in nature without also living one’s life in the way require by the Torah. Accordingly, the mizbayach became the optimal means with which to serve HaShem, because it symbolized man’s active submission to HaShem.
Moreover, the matseivah was now transformed from being beloved to HaShem to being hated by Him, because only recognizing HaShem in the world, without an accompanying commitment to live according to the Torah, is considered a sin in HaShem’s eyes.
A person who recognizes HaShem in nature, and even believe in Divine Providence, fulfils two of the three foundations of belief that the Sefer HaIkrim outlines, but the third is that HaShem gave us the Torah to fulfil it. If he does not follow that third foundation, even if he believes in the other two, then he is fundamentally flawed, because man’s purpose is to take his recognition of HaShem and Divine Providence and live his life according to HaShem’s instructions, as outlined in the Torah.
It is possible to discern a similar idea in explanation of a Mishnah in Pirkei Avot. The Mishna states: “One who is going on the way and is learning, and stops learning, and says, ‘how pleasant is this tree, how pleasant is this bush’, the verse considers it as if he is obligated for his life.” A number of commentaries understand that when the person notes the pleasantness of the tree, he is seeing it as a creation of HaShem and is marveling at HaShem’s creation. Accordingly, they ask what is so bad about observing the wonders of HaShem’s creations, even if one stops learning to do so?
This is all the more difficult given that the Rambam writes that one of the ways of fulfilling the Mitzvot of Ahavat HaShem and Yiras HaShem is by seeing HaShem in nature. They also note that the Mishna can’t simply be coming to teach the severity of bittul Torah (stopping learning), because this was already expressed in an earlier Mishna.
This is all the more difficult given that the Rambam writes that one of the ways of fulfilling the Mitzvot of Ahavat HaShem and Yiras HaShem is by seeing HaShem in nature.
One explanation given is that learning Torah is a higher method of seeing HaShem than observing nature, accordingly, one who stops seeing HaShem through his learning in order to see HaShem through nature, is erring, because Torah is the optimum way to come to love and fear HaShem. However, it is perhaps possible to suggest a slightly different approach, based on the above principle of Rav Hirsch.
Learning Torah is one of the optimum ways of fulfilling the ‘mizbayach’ form of avodat HaShem, of doing actions in this world as a way of expressing recognition of HaShem. Stopping learning in order to see HaShem through nature is akin to rejecting the mizbayach form of avodat HaShem and returning to the ‘matseivah’ form of acknowledging HaShem in nature, because the ultimate purpose of contemplation of HaShem in nature is to bring a person to action. In this instance, he is doing the opposite – foregoing action for contemplation, hence the severity of this behavior.
Rav Hirsch wrote his monumental commentary on the Torah at a time when non-Orthodox movements were arising, that accepted the general idea of HaShem’s existence but rejected active Torah observance, hence his message was very pertinent. Even today, there are certainly many people who have no qualms about acknowledging the Divine imprint on the world, but are far more reluctant to live their lives according to the Torah’s dictates.
Even for the ‘observant’, Rav Hirsch’s lesson seems to be pertinent. It is quite easy for a person to go through the mundane activities in his daily life without an awareness that every action can constitute a type of Mitzva when done with the right intent. Actions such as helping one’s wife, paying a taxi driver, being honest in work, and even crossing the road carefully, can all constitute Mitzvot with the kavannah. However, without kavannah, the majority of a person’s actions are not expressions of submission to HaShem, even though the person will readily acknowledge HaShem’s presence.
Rav Hirsch’s lesson teaches us that we must never forget that the purpose of our lives is to bring HaShem into the world through our actions.