LECTURE 195: THE HISTORY OF THE DIVINE SERVICE AT ALTARS (IV)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

In our previous shiurim,we surveyed the history of the service of God at altars during the period of the patriarchs. After the altars built by the patriarchs and the sacrifices offered by Yaakov, there is no reference in the book of Bereishit to the building of additional altars in Eretz Yisrael. The next time we hear of the building of an altar it is the altar of Moshe at Refidim. That altar is the subject of this week's shiur.

 

Moshe's Building of an altar in Refidim after Israel's Victory over Amalek

 

The first reference to the building of an altar by Moshe is found after the people of Israel arrived in Refidim, after having waged battle against Amalek:

 

And it came to pass, when Moshe held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moshe's hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aharon and Chur supported his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Joshua harried Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. And the Lord said to Moshe, “Write this for a memorial in a book and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heaven.” And Moshe built an altar, and called the name of it Adonai Nisi (the Lord is my miracle [or: banner]), for he said, “Because the Lord has sworn by His throne that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” (Shemot 17:11-16)

 

According to these verses, the background for the building of the altar was the war waged against Amalek and the victory over them. The essence of the altar is to thank God for the victory and to commemorate it for future generations.

 

There are several important aspects to this altar:

 

1. As seen in the altars mentioned in the book of Bereishit, here too there is no mention of any sacrifices being offered at this altar at this time.

 

2. According to the simple understanding, the altar is called The Lord is my miracle (or: banner).

 

3. While building and dedicating the altar, Moshe says that "the Lord has sworn by His throne that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation." We must examine the internal connection between the building of the altar and these words of Moshe.

 

4. There is, of course, a connection between the fact that no mention is made of sacrifices and the fact that the altar serves as a commemoration of the military victory.

 

The Purpose of the Altar

 

The Netziv explains:

 

Were this for the sake of expressing gratitude for the past, it would have been fitting to build the altar before this statement of God. But rather it is an expression of gratitude for this wonderful promise and news.

 

The Netziv argues that had the altar been built as a show of gratitude for the victory in battle, it would have been appropriate to build it before God said "I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heaven." Rather, the building of the altar is a show of thanksgiving for the divine promise addressed to the future.

 

There is a certain similarity between this altar and the altar later built by the two and a half tribes near the Jordan. In their response to Pinchas and the ten tribal princes, these tribes said as follows:

 

Therefore we said, Let us now prepare to build us an altar, not for burnt-offering, nor for sacrifice; but that it may be a witness between us, and you, and our generations after us, that we might do the service of the Lord before Him with our burnt-offerings, and with our sacrifices, and with our peace-offerings; that your children may not say to our children in time to come: You have no part in the Lord. Therefore we said that it shall be, when they should so say to us or to our generations in time to come, that we may reply: Behold the pattern of the altar of the Lord, which our fathers made, not for burnt-offerings, nor for sacrifices, but it is a witness between us and you. God forbid that we should rebel against the Lord and turn this day from following the Lord, to build an altar for burnt-offerings, for meal-offerings, of for sacrifices, besides the altar of the Lord our God that is before His Mishkan. (Yehoshua 22:26-29)

 

This altar was also not intended for the offering of sacrifices, but rather as testimony between those present and future generations. According to this understanding, this altar was directed primarily towards the future and meant for the sake of future generations.

 

Giving a Name to the Altar

 

In his commentary to the verses describing the war against Amalek, Rashi writes:

 

"The Lord is my miracle" – The Holy One, blessed be He, here performed a miracle for us. It does not mean that the altar was named, "The Lord, my miracle," but the reason for calling it was that anyone mentioning the altar's name would thereby remember the miracle which the Omnipresent had performed, since he would be saying: The Lord, He is our miracle. (Shemot 17:15)

 

According to Rashi, it is Moshe who calls the altar "The Lord is my miracle." Rashi also notes that it is not the altar that is called God; rather, the idea is that one who mentions the name of the altar will remember the miracle performed by God at that place. In essence, God is the miracle of the people of Israel.

 

Rashi here follows his own opinion regarding the naming of an altar. Concerning the altar built by Yaakov in Bet-El, Rashi explains:

 

"He called it El Elohei Yisrael" – It does not mean that the altar was named "the God of Israel," but because the Holy One, blessed be He, had been with him and delivered him, he called the name of the altar by a term that had an allusion to the miracle, so that the praise of God might be mentioned when people called it by its name. Thus, it would mean: He who is El, God - that is, the Holy One, blessed be He - is the God of me, whose name is Israel. We find something similar in the case of Moshe: "And he called its name Adonai-Nisi” - not that the altar was called by the divine name, Adonai, but he named the altar thus to mention the praise of the Holy One, blessed be He: The Lord – He is my miracle. Our Rabbis, of blessed memory, expounded it thus: That the Holy One, blessed be He, called Yaakov by the name El. [The verse therefore should be translated "and the God of Israel called him [Yaakov] by the name El."] The words of the Torah – just as a hammer splits the rock into many different pieces – may be given many different explanations. I, however, make it my aim to give the plain sense of Scripture. (Bereishit 33:20)

 

First, it is interesting that Rashi himself connects the two passages. In both, there is a desire to commemorate the miracle by building (or erecting) an altar, while the purpose of giving the altar a name is to mention the praise of God who had performed a miracle. In other words, the name of the altar is meant to remind future generations of God's salvation and allow for praise to be given to God. This understanding sharpens the assertion that the altar was built to perpetuate for generations the praise of God, who performed a miracle in these places.

 

The Maharal comments upon these words of Rashi:

 

You must say that through his service of God every man says "God is my miracle." For the man who serves the Holy One, blessed be He – God saves him from his enemies and performs miracles for him. Therefore, they called the name of the altar, the site of the service of the Holy One, blessed be He, "The Lord is my miracle." For if not, why should an altar be called by this name, "The Lord is my miracle"? Similarly, the altar that Yaakov called El-Elohei-Yisrael, since he would serve the Holy One, blessed be He, on the altar, El was a God to him, whose name is Yisrael. (Gur Aryeh, ad loc.)

 

The Maharal writes as follows in his commentary to the words of Yaakov:

This means that through his service, the Holy One, blessed be, did miracles for him, and he called the altar upon which he would serve the Holy One, blessed be He, El-Elohei-Yisrael. For the Holy One, blessed be He, was his God, who delivered him because he served Him. Just like Leah called her son Reuven, "because God looked upon my affliction," and Shimon, "because He heard my affliction," because God heard and God saw, similarly, Yaakov called the altar El-Elohei-Yisrael, because of the miracle. (Bereishit 33:20, s.v. kara shem ha-mizbe'ach)

 

            R. Yehoshua Hartman, editor of the Gur Aryeh (ed. Makhon Yerushalayim), notes:

 

The Gur Aryeh compares here Yaakov's altar to Reuven and Shimon, for just as Reuven and Shimon are reasons that bring to mind and lead to God's lovingkindness, and for that reason they were called after God's lovingkindness, so too the altar would lead to God's lovingkindness, and for this reason it was called after God's lovingkindness.

 

As Rashi emphasized in his words, the altar is not called after the name of God Himself; rather, giving it the name of God allows one, upon seeing the altar, to remember and perpetuate God's praise, His providence, and His deliverance though a miracle at that place. Just as the names of the children of Leah – Reuven and Shimon – are based on God's direct kindness, so too the altars of Yaakov in Bet-El and of Moshe in Refidim are called after and bring to mind God's kindnesses.

 

The Radak offers a similar explanation:

 

He called the altar by that name so that it should serve as a reminder of how God had saved him on the way, and sent him an angel, and changed his name to Israel - that is to say, that he contended with God. Therefore, that is the name of the altar. Similarly, our master Moshe called the altar that he built “The Lord is my miracle,” to serve as a reminder of the miracle that God had performed for them. Similarly, "And this is his name whereby he shall be called: The Lord is our righteousness" (Yirmeya 23:6); "And this is the name whereby she shall be called, namely: The Lord is our righteousness" (ibid. 33:16); and "And the name of the city from that day shall be: The Lord is there" (Yechezkel 48:35). (Radak, Bereishit 33:20, s.v. ve-kara)

 

From here emerges an interesting principle: whenever something is called by the name of God – a city (like Jerusalem, in the aforementioned examples), sons (like Reuven and Shimon), or an altar – the purpose lies in the very possibility in the future not only to relate that which bears God's name to God, but also to perpetuate the memory of the miracle, the salvation, and the providence for future generations. This is certainly true regarding Moshe's naming of the altar at Refidim following the victory over Amalek and regarding Yaakov's naming of his altar at Bet-El.

 

R. S. R. Hirsch explains in his commentary to the story of Amalek:

 

Just as Yaakov, after he had won the name Yisrael by his night-long fight with the genius of Amalek, built an altar for remembrance, and thereby immortalized the acclamation El-Elohei-Yisrael, so did Moshe here build an altar of remembrance after the first victory over Amalek and after the meaning of this victory had become clear to him. Amalek's greatness lies in destruction. Israel's mission is building, the peaceful human building up of everything earthly to God. This building an altar, this final raising up of the whole earth to form an altar to God, is the antithesis of Amalek's sword. (Shemot 17:15)

 

            R. Hirsch relates here to the content of this altar. Amalek's essence is destruction, while Israel's destiny is building, raising up the earth, and turning it into an altar.

 

            In this sense, the building of an altar expresses the eternal struggle with Amalek for all generations and reminds us of Yisrael's essential destiny. Remembering the victory over Amalek for all generations is the essence of Yisrael. Amalek in its essence is the antithesis of Yisrael. Perpetuating the memory of Yisrael's victory over Amalek through the building of an altar and naming it “The Lord is my miracle” clearly demonstrates that Yisrael, with God's help, defeated Amalek, and the very building of the altar expresses this victory, since building is the opposite of destruction.

 

            A third case of naming an altar is found in the story of Gid'on in the book of Shofetim. Scripture describes the angel of God's appearance to Gid'on, Gid'on's sacrifice, and in its wake the fire that consumed the offering:

 

And when Gid'on perceived that he was an angel of the Lord, Gid'on said, “Alas, O Lord God! Because I have surely seen an angel of the Lord face to face.” And the Lord said to him, “Peace be to you; fear not: you shall not die.” Then Gid'on built an altar there to the Lord and called it Adonai-Shalom; to this day it is yet in Ofra of the Avi-Ezri. (Shofetim 6:22-24)

 

According to the plain sense of the text, when Gid'on saw the angel of God, he experienced and recognized the divine presence and called the altar Adonai-Shalom. This is how Rashi explains these verses in his commentary (ad loc.).

 

Unlike the previous two cases, what lies here in the background is the offering of a sacrifice. At the angel's command, meat and unleavened cakes were placed on the rock, and when the angel touched the meat and cakes with the end of his staff, a fire rose from the rock and consumed them. An altar is built in the wake of seeing the angel of God and after having offered a sacrifice, and there is no direct connection between the sacrifice offered on the rock and the building of the altar and naming it Adonai-Shalom.

 

Here, too, the name assigned to the altar contains the name of God and with it the word for peace.

 

Who called the altar by this name? The Malbim (ad loc.) cites two opinions on this matter:

 

"And he called it Adonai-Shalom" – According to the plain sense, this means that God called it Shalom (Peace). That is to say, since his townsmen were idol worshippers and he feared that they would disturb him just as they destroyed the second altar, God called this altar Peace, as it was not destroyed by the townsmen, and it still stands until today in Ofra as a reminder of the miracle. The commentator explained that Gid'on called the altar Adonai-Shalom, that is to say, God will arrange for peace for us. That is, he recognized that God is the peace of all the worlds. He is the thread that connects all parts of the world and maintains them. As we explained in our commentary to Yeshaya (45:7) regarding the verse: "I make peace." And for this reason He is called the king to whom peace belongs. And Chazal said about this (Shabbat 12b): Here God Himself is called peace.

 

"And he called its name," "and He called it"

 

In the commentaries, we find three understandings as to who or what is called by the name:

 

1) The altar - as we saw in Rashi's commentary.

 

2) God – The Seforno explains:

 

"And he called His name: The Lord is my miracle" – He called upon the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, in his prayer, as in: "I called upon Your name, O Lord" (Eikha 3:55). (Shemot 17:15)

 

3) The members of Yaakov's household – R. Hirsch writes in connection with Yaakov's naming of the altar:

 

Therefore, also "And he proclaimed for himself" - he proclaimed this conception of making a pillar into an altar to himself and to his people. The patriarchs called upon the name of the Lord, proclaimed to the world the name of God, proclaimed to the people that God is not merely the One who created the world thousands of years ago, but is He who still bears heaven and earth and from whom still every present and coming moment emanates directly. But what Yaakov wanted to proclaim by erecting this altar as a pillar was not yet for mankind in general, that he had primarily first to proclaim for himself and his own, that the God (El) from whom everything in heaven and earth originated, is to be, and wishes to be the God of Israel (Elohei Yisrael), Israel's lawgiver, judge, and God, recognizable not only in Israel's fate and history, but, above all, in Israel's deeds. (Bereishit 33:20)

 

In our opinion, Rashi's view seems to be the most persuasive - namely, that it is the altar itself that was named. This seems to be the plain sense of the verses, and mentioning the name of God in association with the altar for all future generations seems to be of great significance.

 

Who Issues the Name "The Lord is my Miracle"

 

Mekhilta De-Rashbi (ad loc.) cites various opinions regarding the question who called the altar "The Lord is my miracle":

 

R. Yehoshua says: Moshe called it “My miracle.” He said to them: This miracle that God performed for you, He did it for me. R. Elazar ha-Moda'i says: God called it “My miracle.” For as long as Israel is in a miraculous state, it is as if there is a miracle before Him. When they are in a troubled state, it is as if there is trouble before Him. When they are in a glad state, there is gladness before Him. And similarly it says: "For You, Lord, have made me glad" (Tehillim 92:5).

 

According to the midrash, in the opinion of R. Elazar ha-Moda'i, God Himself, as it were, experiences the experiences of Israel. When they enjoy a miracle, the miracle is before Him, and the same is true of trouble and gladness. It is as if there is no distinction between God and the people of Israel. That which they feel and undergo is what God, as it were, feels and undergoes.

 

The Lord is my Miracle [or: My Banner]

 

The Rashbam explains:

 

God's staff was a banner on the hill. Similarly, in the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will raise it as a banner over the hills to fight Amalek, for He said to him now: "I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek." This is what He says: "He said, ‘Because the Lord has sworn by His throne.’" Therefore, I call the name of the altar “The Lord is my banner,” similar to the name of a person whose name is Eliezer or Emanuel (Yeshaya 7:14), for God raised His hand over His throne and swore that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation, similar to: "For I lift up my hand to heaven" (Devarim 32:40). (Shemot 17:15)

 

In other words, calling the altar “The Lord is my banner” is, as it were, the waving of God's staff, both now and in the future war against Amalek.

 

The Malbim in his commentary brings three meanings of the word nes:

 

The sense of testing (nisayon) that Israel tested God, and therefore He tested them in the war with Amalek to see whether they would return to their faith.

The sense of war banner, as it says: "See, when he lifts up a banner on the mountains" (Yeshaya 18:3). For Moshe's hands were a banner on the basis of which Israel prevailed; when he raised his hands as a banner and they believed, they prevailed.

The sense of a miracle and marvel, for at the end He performed a miracle for them and they rested. Similarly, in the future, He will perform a miracle and Amalek will perish.

This was also an allusion for future generations, for the war against Amalek in the days of Moshe was a test for their testing of God, and the war against Amalek in the days of Shaul was a banner of war, for then the Lord of hosts appointed a king in Israel and an army, and in the future [the war against Amalek] will be fought through miracles and wonders, and also in the days of Mordechai it was fought through hidden miracles. (Shemot 17:15)

 

According to the Malbim, calling the altar by the name Adonai Nisi reminds future generations of the test, the war banner, and the miracles and wonders.

 

Before we conclude, it must be emphasized that in contrast to the altars that were built in the book of Bereishit by individuals – Noach and the patriarchs – this is the first altar built after the people of Israel left the land of Egypt. This construction by Moshe was meant to represent the relationship of the entire people of Israel to God at that time and in future generations. This is in addition to the fact already mentioned that the altar came to perpetuate the permanent war against Amalek and their blotting out in every generation, from that time onward.

 

Because the Lord has sworn by His throne that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation

 

There are several ways to understand the words “Ki yad al kes Yah,” literally, "Because a hand is on the throne of God":

 

Several commentators (R. Saadya Gaon, Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Ramban) explain:

 

The hand of the Holy One, blessed be He, is raised to swear by His throne that He will have war and enmity against Amalek to all eternity. (Rashi)

 

In other words, God raises His hand over His throne in order to swear.

 

The Rashbam cites an anonymous opinion (which he rejects) that says:

 

When a hand [= power] and strength will be on God's throne, which is the throne of the kings of Israel, then there will be a war against Amalek.

 

The Ramban also cites those who say:

 

For when there will be a hand on the throne of God, there will be a war for God, and so it will be from generation to generation. The idea is that when a king of Israel will sit on the throne of God, he will fight against Amalek. This is an allusion to Shaul the first king.

 

In other words, the ability to fight against Amalek depends upon the establishment of the kingdom of Israel and the sitting of the king of Israel's on the throne of God.

 

R. D. Tz. Hoffman, in his commentary to the book of Shemot,writes that the word yad means "victory monument." Moshe dedicates the altar as a monument of victory, similar to the monument erected by Shaul in the wake of his war against Amalek, as described in the book of Shemuel:

 

And when Shemuel rose early to Shaul in the morning, it was told to Shemuel, saying, “Shaul came to Karmel, and, behold, he set him up a monument (yad), and is gone about, and passed on, and gone down to Gilgal.” (I Shemuel 15:12).

 

God's throne is Mount Chorev, on which this altar was built, or else the rock from which the water issued forth and upon which God stood. A monument stands, as it were, on God's throne and constantly reminds Him of the war against Amalek.

 

According to R. Hoffman, there is a direct connection between the altar itself and the war against Amalek. The whole idea of the altar is to serve as a monument to the victory, on the one hand, and to God's eternal war against Amalek, on the other. Therefore, this altar, like the altars built by the patriarchs (with the exception of the altar built on Mount Moriya, as we saw in previous shiurim) was not intended for the offering of sacrifices. In this case, it was intended to perpetuate the memory of the victory over Israel. Even its name attests to its essence, ”The Lord is my miracle.” Similarly, the erection of the monument attests that this was its intended purpose.

 

 

(Translated by David Strauss)