The Torah in Parashat Shoftim commands, “Do not plant for yourself an asheira or any tree near the altar of the Lord your God” (16:21). Rashi explains, based on the Sifrei, that the Torah here introduces a prohibition against planting trees or building structures in the area of the Temple Mount. Significantly, however, although this prohibition applies to all trees and structures, the Torah makes specific mention here of the asheira, a tree that was served as an idolatrous object by the ancient pagans. How might we explain this formulation of the command, forbidding planting an asheira tree alongside the altar in the Temple courtyard?
Rav Zev Chaim Lifshitz, in his Zachalti Va-ira (Parashat Shoftim), suggests that the Torah is subtly warning against transforming the altar, the site where we offer sacrifices, into an asheira – an object of idolatrous worship. If we ascribe magical powers to our religious articles, such as the altar, then we have, essentially, turned it into an object of idolatrous worship. The altar is a place where we sacrifice, where we express our submission to God’s will and our willingness to sacrifice our own wishes for His sake. If we view the altar, or any other religious object, as a magical instrument which mystically erases our sins or helps us attain what we want, then we engage in what is, essentially, pagan worship.
Rav Lifshitz explains in a similar vein Rashi’s comments to the concluding verse of Parashat Shoftim, regarding the egla arufa ritual which was performed after a murder victim was found outside a city. Rashi explains the final verse as instructing that if the murderer is identified after the ceremony is performed, he must stand trial and, if found guilty, executed. Apparently, one might have otherwise figured that once the egla arufa ritual has been performed, the case is closed, so-to-speak, and nothing more needs to be done in response to this terrible crime. The Torah therefore clarifies that the killer must be brought to justice even after the egla arufa procedure. The basis for this mistaken notion, Rav Lifshitz explains, is a “magical” perspective on the Torah’s ritual laws. If we approach the egla arufa with this sort of mystical mindset, then we will, indeed, conclude that this ceremony magically cures the societal ill which resulted in a heinous crime, such that no further action is needed. The Torah therefore reminds us not to turn the Torah’s laws into an “asheira,” into a variation of pagan ritual. As vitally important as our ritual obligations are, they in no way take the place of the hard work needed to refine our characters and build an ethical, moral society.