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The Secret of the Altar of Joy

Mount Eval is the mountain of curse. Concealed in the deep significance of the altar built there, though, we understand that Mount Eval is a source of joy. What is it about Mount Eval that transforms it from a barren mountain to the concealed potential of the Tree of Life? In this audio meditation on the Torah portion of Ki Tavo, Rabbi Ginsburgh delves into the deep significance of the miraculous altar on Mount Eval and how this image reflects the epitome of our service of God and its resulting joy.

>>> Listen to Audio Lecture here

The Miraculous Altar on Mt. Eval

In the Torah portion of Re'eh, we learned about the blessings and curse that the Jewish People received on the mountains of Gerizim and Eval. This week's Torah portion focuses on Mount Eval with the commandment to build an altar of massive, uncut stones on the mountain. This altar is unique in that God commanded us to write all the words of the Torah on its stones of the altar. Thus, the altar on Mount Eval serves a two-fold purpose: Sacrifices, representing our service of God, are brought upon it, while it is also a physical symbol conveying God's teachings for the Jewish People and all humanity.

The last two words of the commandment to write the words of the Torah on the stones are "ba'er hetev," ("totally explain"). Rashi, the famous Biblical commentator, explains that this phrase is God's directive to write the entire Torah on the stones of this altar in 71 languages -- Hebrew and the 70 languages of all the peoples on earth. This teaches us that the words of the Torah are for all mankind, and should reach all peoples of the earth. The fact that the entire Torah could be engraved on this altar 71 times is miraculous.

The Iron Stones that Cannot be Touched by Iron

The stones for the altar on Mount Eval were taken from the bed of the Jordan River. God specified that these stones must be large and complete, with no iron tool having been wielded over them. The prohibition against cutting stones for an altar with iron tools applies to the altar of the holy Temple in Jerusalem as well. Our Sages explain that iron tools such as knives and swords are used to shorten life. They are thus antithetical to the altar, whose purpose is to lengthen life, both quantitatively and qualitatively. However, in seeming contrast to this concept, the Torah portion of Ekev (Deuteronomy 8:9) describes the stones of the Land of Israel as being made of iron.

There are seven metals mentioned in the Torah, corresponding to the seven attributes of the heart. Iron is the last metal, and corresponds to the attribute of malchut, "kingdom." Kingdom is the attribute of the heart most vulnerable to negativity. Kingdom can be positive, but more often we experience negative kingdom, as the drive to rule derives from egocentricity in the soul. This results in the negative kingdom using iron to shorten life.

 By contrast, the iron stones of the Land of Israel represent positive, holy kingdom. The Temple of the future will be built with iron because then the attribute of kingdom will be completely holy.  

The Ten Commandments

The first time that the words of the Torah were hewed in stone was on the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. There were five commandments written on each tablet. In the unit of verses commanding us to engrave the words of the Torah on the stones of the altar on Mount Eval, the word for "stones," avanim, is written five times, each time in the plural form. In the Talmud we learn that every time something is mentioned in the plural form, it refers to two, which is the minimal plurality.

In two of the five instances that "stones" is written, it appears as "the stones," ha'avanim.  Our Sages teach that this means an additional one. Thus, there are ten stones alluded to by the five references to avanim, plus an additional two stones alluded to by the two times that the word is written as ha'avanim.  In all, this makes 12 stones, one for each tribe of Israel.

The fact that avanim appears twice as ha'avanim alludes to the division of the ten stones into two sections of five and five, identical to the division of the Ten Commandments. Thus we see that the stones of the altar on Mount Eval are a more complete manifestation of the Ten Commandments.

The Tree of Life

The Hebrew words for "altar of stones" in our verse are mizbach avanim, whose numerical value is 160, the same value as eitz, "tree." Although Mount Eval is barren, the altar to be built specifically upon this mountain equals and alludes to "tree." The altar upon which the Torah is engraved for all the peoples of the earth gives spiritual sustenance to the entire world. The tree of this barren mountain is the Tree of Life.

After the Torah refers to this altar as an "altar of stones," it also calls it an "altar of God, your God," mizbach Hashem Elokecha. The numerical value of this phrase is 149. When 149 is added to the value of mizbach avanim  (160 -- eitz), we receive 309, the numerical value of sadeh, "field."

Thus, the two phrases describing the altar point to the tree of the field, discussed in the Torah portion of Shoftim.

Plastered Stones

Uniquely, God commands that the stones of the altar on Mount Eval be covered with sid, "plaster." The letters of sid (shin, yud, dalet) are a permutation of the letters of God's Name, Shakai (shin, dalet, yud). The numerical value of sid is 314, the same as hasadeh, "the field." Hence, we see that the plastered altar of stones on Mount Eval alludes to the tree of the field. As we learned in our meditation on the Torah portion of Shoftim, the tree of the field represents man. The phrase "tree of the field" equals the "pleasure and serenity of the Almighty," noam Shakai.  In our context, the word noam means the pleasure of the Torah itself, whose "ways are ways of pleasantness." This pleasantness now manifests on the mountain of the curse in this miraculous altar.  

Transforming the Curse to Joy

The image of the altar of stones on Mount Eval is the culmination of our meditations on the Torah portions of  Ekev, Re'eh and Shoftim. This one image represents the epitome of our Divine service -- our sacrifices to God -- and the joy of entering the Land of Israel to serve Him, as described at the beginning of this Torah portion.

Joy is the inner dimension of binah ("understanding"). Mount Eval represents binah.  Even though it appears to be a source of curse, it is actually a source of joy. This joy reaches out through the words of Torah engraved on the altar on Mount Eval's summit to encompass all the nations of the earth.



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