We Are All the Disciples of Abraham
It is written, “You shall not plant for yourselves an Ashera of any tree near the altar of Hashem your G-d, which you shall make. Neither shall you erect for yourselves a pillar, which Hashem your G-d hates. You shall not sacrifice to Hashem your G-d an ox or a sheep with a defect, anything evil, for that is an abomination to Hashem your G-d” (Devarim 16:21-17:1). There are a host of things that are difficult to understand in this week’s parsha, which begins with the appointment of judges and officers to judge the people in accordance with the principles of Torah and justice.
First of all, what is the expression, “You shall not plant for yourselves an Ashera” doing after, “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates” (Devarim 16:18)? Furthermore, how could anyone think that a Jew would want to plant an Ashera next to the altar? This is impossible, for anyone who wants to plant one does so only for idolatrous purposes, meaning that he does not believe in the altar. Such a person will therefore plant his Ashera elsewhere, not near the altar. We also need to explain what the expression, “You shall not sacrifice to Hashem your G-d an ox or a sheep with a defect” is doing next to the mitzvah to appoint judges and officers.
Israel Bends Like the Reed
We may explain this entire passage according to the teachings of Mussar: The above passage pertains only to a person who grows proud, for the Sages have said: “Better is the curse that Ahijah the Shilonite pronounced on Israel than the blessings with which the wicked Bilam blessed them. Ahijah the Shilonite cursed them by comparing them with the reed. He said to Israel, ‘For Hashem will smite Israel as a reed is shaken in water’ [I Kings 14:15]. The reed grows by the water, its stock grows new shoots, its roots are many, and although all the winds in the world come and blow against it, they cannot move it from its place because it sways with the winds, and the reed resumes its upright position as soon as they have stopped. However the wicked Bilam blessed them by comparing them with the cedar, as it is said: ‘Like cedars by the water’ [Bamidbar 24:6]. The cedar does not grow by the water, its stock does not grow new shoots, its roots are not many, and although all the winds in the world blow against it, they cannot move it from its place. Yet if the south wind blows at it, it uproots and overturns it” (Taanith 20a).
Why did Bilam bless them by comparing them to a cedar, while Ahijah the Shilonite compared them to a reed?
Both men spoke in keeping with their own nature. Our Sages have said, “Whoever possesses the following characteristics is among the disciples of Abraham our father, and [whoever possesses] the three opposite characteristics is among the disciples of the wicked Bilam. The disciples of our father Abraham possess a good eye, a humble spirit, and a meek soul. The disciples of the wicked Bilam possess an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul” (Pirkei Avoth 5:19).
Ahijah the Shilonite spoke in keeping with his nature – a humble spirit and a meek soul like the reed – while the wicked Bilam spoke in keeping with his nature – an arrogant spirit and a greedy soul, a soul as insatiable as a cedar. Yet the pronouncement of the former was fulfilled, while that of the latter was not. It is in the nature of Jews to bend like a reed and not to grow proud.
Hence it is written, “You shall not plant for yourselves an Ashera of any tree.” This seems like a redundant expression, for the term Ashera implies a tree. Therefore why use the term “tree” and “Ashera” together?
This teaches us that whoever grows proud and becomes as hard as a tree, Scripture considers him to have planted an Ashera near the altar in order to reject G-d. As our Sages have said, “Every man in whom pride dwells, the Holy One, blessed be He, declares: ‘I and he cannot both dwell in the world’ ” (Sotah 5a). It is also taught, “If one walks with a stiff bearing even for four cubits, it is as if he pushed against the heels of the Shechinah” (Berachot 43b). The Sages add: “Everyone who is proud of heart is an abomination to Hashem…. It is as though he had erected an idolatrous altar” (Sotah 4b).
Pride Points to a Defect
The verse uses the expression “near the altar of Hashem your G-d,” which indicates that even if a person studies a great deal of Torah and practices mitzvot, Hashem will want nothing to do with him if he grows proud. Hence we read, “You shall not sacrifice to Hashem your G-d an ox or a sheep with a defect, anything evil, for that is an abomination to Hashem your G-d.” Although a person may make himself into an ox with regards to carrying the yoke of the Torah – as the Sages have said: “What is the meaning of the verse, ‘…sending the ox and the donkey to roam freely’ [Isaiah 32:20]? … In order to study words of Torah, one must cultivate in oneself the [habit of] the ox for bearing a yoke and of the donkey for carrying burdens” (Avodah Zarah 5b) – if he grows proud, he will still be an abomination to Hashem. The verse explicitly says “an abomination to Hashem” (Devarim 17:1), and we also read, “Every haughty heart is an abomination to Hashem” (Mishlei 16:5). In both cases the issue is pride, for Hashem abhors all who grow proud.
How do we know that the passage is speaking of the proud? The verse says, “with a defect,” and the Sages state: “What is the meaning of the verse, ‘Why do you prance [teratzdun], O you mountains of majestic peaks’ [Tehillim 68:17]? A Celestial voice went forth and said to them: ‘Why do you want litigation [tirtzu din] with Sinai? You are all full of defects in comparison to Sinai.’ Here it is written, ‘gavnunim [of majestic peaks]’ and elsewhere it is written, ‘or gibein [a hunchback] or a dwarf’ [Vayikra 21:20]. Rabbi Ashi observed, ‘From here you learn that if a man is proud, it constitutes a defect in him’ ” (Megillah 29a).
Complete Control of the Gates
At the beginning of this week’s parsha we read: “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates” (Devarim 16:18), and we know what is written in our holy books, namely that the gates mentioned here are those of the body: The eyes, mouth, and ears. A person must always protect them from sin and control them with his good inclination.
Just as a person can sin with his eyes, mouth, and ears, he must use them to fulfill mitzvot. The Midrash tells us, “King David said, ‘Sovereign of the universe, every day I used to plan and decide that I would go to a particular place or to a particular dwelling, but my feet always brought me to synagogues and houses of study.’ Hence it is written, ‘I returned my feet to Your commandments’ [Tehillim 119:59]” (Vayikra Rabba 35:1).
This is why a hunchback is mentioned in regards to the prohibition against “erect[ing] for yourselves a pillar, which Hashem your G-d hates.” This teaches us that just as a pillar does not bend before the wind, a proud person does not yield before anyone, and since he is proud, he is abhorrent to Hashem.