The Torah tells in Parashat Vayishlach of God’s command to Yaakov to fulfill the vow he had made when he left Canaan to erect an altar in Beit-El (35:1). Before journeying from the area of Shekhem, where he had been residing, to Beit-El, Yaakov instructed his family members and the other people with him to rid themselves of any idolatrous objects which they may have had in their possession. Rashi explains that this refers to the booty which his sons collected from the city of Shekhem after Shimon and Levi’s assault on the city, which included jewelry and utensils that had been used in pagan rituals. The Torah relates that Yaakov took all these objects and buried them “underneath the eila tree which was near Shekhem” (35:4). Curiously, the Torah here uses the definitive article “ha-” (“the”), suggesting that this is a tree with which the reader is already familiar.
This nuance led some scholars to speculate that Yaakov buried these articles at the site of Avraham’s first stop when he emigrated to Eretz Yisrael. Earlier, in Parashat Lekh-Lekha (12:6), we read that when Avraham moved to Canaan in fulfillment of God’s command, he journeyed through the land “until the area of Shekhem, until ‘Eilon Moreh’,” where God appeared to him and promised that his descendants would inherit the land. Avraham then erected an altar at that site and “called out in the Name of God” – a phrase which has been interpreted to mean either that he prayed, or that he preached monotheism. It has been suggested that the word “eilon” is synonymous with “eila,” such that Yaakov buried his family’s idolatrous articles at the site of his grandfather’s altar, which he erected at his first station after arriving in Canaan upon beholding a prophetic vision. Yaakov buried these article underneath the “eila” – the “eilon” (which was called “Eilon Moreh”) where Avraham had erected his altar.
The significance of Yaakov’s choosing this specific site likely relates to the fact that Yaakov was now retracing his grandfather’s footsteps. Just as God appeared to Avraham in Charan and commanded him to move to Canaan, similarly, God appeared to Yaakov when he was living with his uncle in Charan and commanded him to return to Canaan. After twenty years of exile, Yaakov was now reenacting Avraham’s move to the Promised Land, and so he returned to the site where Avraham had erected an altar and reaffirmed his commitment to God, and did something very similar. Yaakov buried there the symbols of idolatry which he seized from his family and servants as a strong display of unbridled commitment to God, affirming that they have returned to Eretz Yisrael for the specific purpose of serving the Almighty.
This pattern continued generations later, in the times of Yehoshua. The final chapter of Sefer Yehoshua (24) tells of Yehoshua assembling Benei Yisrael in Shekhem after the completion of the process of conquering and distributing Eretz Yisrael. There Yehoshua had the people reaffirm their covenant with the Almighty, using language nearly identical to Yaakov’s instruction to his household in Shekhem before journeying to Beit-El: “Remove the foreign gods that are among you and turn your hearts to the Lord, God of Israel” (Yehoshua 24:23). He then erected a stone as a monument “underneath the ala tree.” Rashi and the Radak cite a tradition that this was the very site where Yaakov had buried his family’s pagan articles. Now that the process of conquest and settlement was completed, Yehoshua had the people return to the site where Avraham and Yaakov proclaimed that their entry into the Land of Israel was for the purpose of serving God. Yehoshua drew the people’s attention to the fact that they were establishing a nation in Eretz Yisrael to continue Avraham’s work of “calling in the Name of God,” to represent the Creator and live in a manner that brings glory to His Name throughout the world.
(This general approach was briefly presented by a contributor to the journal Ha-pisga, Vilna, 5657.)