An Altar of Earth
We just looked at the section on the mizbeiach as being more about the role of the religious rite in a life of Torah. We don’t offer qorbanos — or daven, or shake lulav and esrog or… — to rertreat from the world and find solace with G-d, but as part of our engagement with the world, a life-long process of self-refinement.
There are two comments by Rashi on this section that each offer a pair of perspectives on the question they address:
כי מן השמים דברתי: וכתוב אחד אומר “וירד ה’ על הר סיני” בא הכתוב השלישי והכריע ביניהם (דברים ד) מן השמים השמיעך את קולו ליסרך ועל הארץ הראך את אשו הגדולה כבודו בשמים ואשו וגבורתו על הארץ (מכילתא) ד”א הרכין שמים ושמי השמים והציען על ההר וכן הוא אומר (תהלים יח) ויט שמים וירד
From the heavens I spoke to you: And one verse says “Hashem ‘descended’ onto Mount Sinai”. A third verse comes and decides between them — “from heaven He let you hear his ‘voice, and upon the earth he showed you His great fire in heaven and his fire and might on the earth”. (Mekhilta)
Another thought: He stretched out the heavens and the heavens of heavens, and extended them onto the mountain. And so it says “He extended the heaven and ‘descended’.”
How do we picture the revelation at Sinai? Did Hashem “come down to earth” or did we get a glimpse of heaven? The Mekhilta suggests the latter. But Rashi also offers a second opinion — that heavens were stretched down until heaven and earth coincided at Sinai.
מזבח אדמה: מחובר באדמה שלא יבננו על גבי עמודים או על גבי כיפים (נ”א בסיס) (מכילתא) ד”א שהיה ממלא את חלל מזבח הנחשת אדמה בשעת חנייתן
An altar of earth: Attached to the earth. That you should not build it upon pillars or domes [another variant: or atop a foundation]. (Mekhilta)
Another thought: That you filled the hollow of the bronze altar [of the Mishkan] at the times they camped.
Two understandings of what an “altar of earth” would mean: either an altar that must be on or attached to the earth, or a reference to the earth that filled the mizbeiach of the Mishkan.
It is possible the two comments are two reflections of the same dispute. Note that both offer one opinion by the Mekhilta and then a second interpretation. For this to be true, we would have to view the concept of mizbeiach as a recreation of Sinai. Which would explain why this mitzvah in particular is explained in relation to the three pillars upon which the world stands. The mizbeiach is not only the place of worship, it is also the reconnection to the revelation of how to perfect the three classes of relationships in our lives.
The Mekhilta views Sinai as a glimpse of heaven from down here on earth. And so the altar of earth is one placed firmly on the ground. The gap between heaven and earth must be clear — as is the wondrousness of being able to experience Hashem across it.
In Rashi’s other opinion, heaven and earth met at Sinai. Therefore the recreation of it at the altar is when we take Hashem’s altar and fill it with earth.
Parashas Naso opens with a discussion of oaths and vows. The Torah writes, “A man, when he makes a neider LaShem [oath to HaShem], or gives a shevu’ah [vow] to prohibit something al nafsho [on his living soul].” (30:3)
It is a fundamental principle of Torah study that not a single word is wasted. So, while this pasuq appears repetitious, it isn’t. There must be some subtle distinction between a neider to Hashem and a shevu’ah on one’s nefesh.
The gemara (Nedarim 2b) describes a neider as “when he prohibits an object to himself.” It changes the state of the object, or in Brisker jargon, the cheftza. A shevu’ah, however, is “when he prohibits himself from an object” (ibid). Here, it is the gavra, the individual, who is affected.
For example, if a person were to say, “This thing shall be a qorban for me,” it would be a neider. With his words, he is sanctifying the object, and thereby prohibiting it to everyone. On the other hand, if he were to say, “I will not eat this thing,” he made a shevu’ah. He changed himself, by giving himself a new prohibition. To the rest of the world, the animal may be eaten.
As I already mentioned, the distinction between gavra and cheftza is used frequently in Brisker lomdus. For example, is the gavra exempt from sitting in a sukkah in the rain (or any other circumstance one wouldn’t stay at home through) , or is the cheftza of the booth not technically a sukkah when it’s not in a condition that you would live in? The difference would be whether one accomplishes anything by sitting in a sukkah the first night of Sukkos. If the rain exempts the gavra, then one is fulfilling a non-obligatory mitzvah. A beraskhah would be appropriate, and someone who doesn’t want to miss out on the mitzvah may wait up until midnight in case the rain stops, and sit in the rain for qiddush and hamotzi if it does not. Whereas, if the rain turns the cheftza into a non-sukkah, then the act of sitting in the rain is empty.
With this dialectic between bringing heaven down to earth vs. elevating this world up to heaven, we can get a philosophical perspective on the gavra–cheftza divide. A neider, or any other obligation on the gavra, takes the angle of improving the self. Admittedly not bringing heaven here, but still — improving the one charged with following Hashem’s Torah and Moral Law in this world. The Sinai revelation as “from heaven I spoke to you“. When we speak of obligations on the chefza we talk about changing the world, elevating it. An altar made of the earth, Mt. Sinai as unifying earth and heaven.