|I don’t think anyone reading this is acquainted with a man or woman who built a pillar and then worshipped it. It might have been common in the ancient world but how is this relevant for a 21st century Jew? Here’s one application important for us.
And you shall not erect for yourself a pillar, which Hashem, your G-d, hates (Devarim 16:22).R. Moshe Feinstein [(1895-1986) Drash Moshepp. 154-155] applies this to the central Jewish concept that each of us is required to strive constantly to raise ourselves higher Jewishly.Imagine a seventy-year-old Jewish woman whose life serves as a model for how Jews are supposed to live. She prays, learns Torah, is deeply involved in her family and community and helps many people in need as well as giving charity generously. She reasons, “I have led a good and loyal life as a Jew; let me take it easy from now on. There’s no reason to grow in my level of observance, improve my character, or anything else. I am who I am, and that’s certainly enough.” Here’s where the pillar idea comes in.
The Torah prohibits a pillar for worship because it suggests being fixed and stagnant; a pillar never grows or moves. Although we find that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob built monuments as a public display of their gratitude for the Almighty, that was before the Torah was given and Jews were not yet obligated in mitzvot; whatever they did was counted to their credit. But now that we have Torah, we use it as our guidebook as long as we live, and there is always room to improve how we connect to and observe it. For example, the woman above might have lit Shabbos candles for decades, but it’s always last minute. She has done the mitzvah but not in a mindful way; there’s always room for improvement. Her life isn’t about doing the minimum or resting on her laurels, it is to do as many mitzvot as she can in the best way she can. A pillar remains forever static, which is the opposite of what our lives are meant to be.
This idea is also found in the Chassidic classic Ma’or V’shamesh by R. Klonimus Kalman of Cracow (1751-1827). He explains that the difference between an angel and human is that, in Hebrew, an angel is called an omed — “stationary” (see Zechariah 3:7) but a person is called a mehalech — a “goer.” Whatever level the angel attained when created is constant; it can’t advance or rise higher. But a person has a soul and is called a goer. A human might fall to the depths of depravity but has the ability to get himself out of it and go from strength to strength. People who grew up in abusive homes or even those who spent years in prison have the ability to transcend the circumstances life has thrown their way. We don’t need to resign ourselves to any situation, we are imbued with a soul that allows us to constantly grow and reach potential we never imagined existed inside us.
Jews are supposed to be a model for the rest of the world and a big part of that is that it is incumbent on us to continuously rise higher and higher in our mitzvah observance and our connection to the Almighty. The level reached yesterday isn’t adequate for today. Being comfortable is an important part of living but it is not a goal unto itself.Your soul has been placed in this world because there’s something you can accomplish that no one else can. If not, G-d would not have put you here. One never knows when and where that unique gift will be and for how long. We’re not meant to be angels; the way to fulfill your potential is by allowing the instructions of Torah to guide you so that you constantly grow and give the world what you were meant to. Good Shabbos