At the end of Yitro, this week’s Torah portion, we read that we should make an altar of earth and not of stone (Exodus 20:21-22). It seems to make sense that in response to our having just received the Torah we would feel the drive to respond to God’s revelation with sacrifice. But, why the commandment to make alters out of earth and not stone?
I think an answer to this question is found in Yitro’s critique of Moses which itself serves as the introduction to the giving of the Torah. Moses is sitting all day adjudicating God’s law for the people. Yitro says:
The thing that you do is not good. You will surely become worn out and you are well as this people who are with you for this matter is too hard for you. You will not be able to do it alone.” (Exodus 18:17-18)
At the core Yitro is telling Moses to reveal God’s Torah to all the people directly. Torah needs no agency.
The centrality of earthen alters over hewn stone seems to reflect a populist notion of devotion. Everyone should have access to this response, not just those who have the money or the physical strength to make a stone structure. Everyone should have access to saying thank you to God just as everyone should have access to Torah itself. Neither Torah nor a response to it is in Heaven; they are both in reach. In a world with Google, Wikipedia, and Facebook every aspect of knowledge is within reach. The more I learn about Jewish history the more I want to say thank you. Why not find new ways to learn about our heritage? My challenge stands, just as Yitro, that we all find some good people to join in learning Torah. While Torah is not in heaven it is much easier to reach in the context of a community. And the best part is with the help of the internet, we are no longer limited to finding community in the context of the stone buildings of our institutions. Our community might be right there in our backyard.