Do not plant an idolatrous tree – any tree – near G-d’s altar… (Deut. 16:21)
Sacrifices occupy an outsize position in the Torah and are easily misunderstood. We reject the notion that these offerings give G-d anything. How could they? A perfect G-d cannot be made more perfect. We cannot “feed” or “sustain” Him. The Hebrew word for sacrifices is korbanot, derived from the word close. Sacrifices work upon us, not upon Him, and give us the opportunity to become more sensitive both in our relationships with people and G-d; they are effective in helping to expand us both emotionally and spiritually. How exactly this works is too extensive a concept for now but it is the consensus of all classical Jewish sources. In short, we become better people, but none of this has relevance when speaking of G-d, who cannot be changed or improved. The Torah’s Human-centered treatment of korbanot (sacrifices) is diametrically opposed to the ancient pagans, who recognized separate forces whose worship, they believed, increased their power. According to this way of thinking, sacrifices were used to either entreat or express gratitude to these forces.
Plants and animals are organic. They can change, grow, flourish. Earth, on the other hand, is unchanging. It knows nothing about development. The Torah therefore insists on the latter in building an altar, instructing us to build it out of stones rather than wood. The altar, symbolic of G-d accepting our offerings, remains as unchanging as stone. It is unlike wood, which when still connected to the ground can be nurtured and encouraged to expand and change. The construction of the Altar embodies the following crucial idea; G-d doesn’t need anything we might offer Him, and this introduces us to the prohibition of planting an idolatrous tree near the Altar.The Altar is not the only fixture of Jewish life that must eschew receiving. Justice can never be served unless judges remain entirely neutral. They, too, must distance themselves from any gain related to the cases they try. They must resist anything that enhances their position, be it tangible goods, favors, or prestige.
The Talmud says that “Any judge who judges a true judgment according to its truth becomes a partner with G-d in Creation.” One explanation is that “according to its truth” means that the same way that G-d had no ulterior motive in creating the world, He received nothing from it, so too is the case with a judge. When he exercises his authority in the same way, pursuing justice for its own sake without the admixture of any gain whatsoever, he becomes a partner with G-d. He acts with the same purity of intent as G-d did when he brought the world into existence-but it doesn’t end there.
The judge and the Altar are also partners. They share a common function, they bring the hearts of people close to their Heavenly Father. The judge does this by relieving the strife between people, which in turn interferes with the Almighty’s relationship with His nation. Sacrifices undo the damage that the sinner has done through his transgression, and reverse the distance it has created between Man and G-d. This is what the ancient Rabbis taught when they said that the Torah section on civil law is juxtaposed to one about the Altar in order to teach that the Sanhedrin (Supreme Court) should convene near the Alter. They belong together because between the two of them, the nation rids itself of its blemishes. Peace is restored to the people as they interact with each other and with the Almighty.
Finally, the Talmud says that “Whoever appoints an improper judge” – i.e. one who derives some gain from his office – “is as if he planted an idolatrous tree near the Altar.” The Altar is a symbol of a perfect G-d not receiving from human beings. When judges, who act, so to speak, in G-d’s place, corrupt their office with personal gain, they symbolically substitute the needy, receiving idolatrous tree for the stones of the Altar.
Whether it’s not planting an idolatrous tree in the Temple courtyard or making the Altar out of stone instead of wood or appointing proper judges, we seem to need constant reminders that something Higher than us exists. Although the Temple and its symbols are no longer with us, its timeless lessons are.
(Sources: Meshech Chochmah, 16:21; Mechlita, Yisro, end; Inorganic Divine Chemistry by Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein)