After twenty years of hard labor working for his treacherous uncle, Jacob returned safely to the Land of Israel. Jacob was successful in appeasing his brother Esau, and finally made it back to Beth El.
Beth El was the place where, as he set out to leave the Land of Israel, Jacob dreamt of a ladder reaching to the Heavens, of angels and God’s promise to watch over him. Now Jacob fulfilled his twenty-year-old promise and erected a matzeivah, a pillar in God’s Name, in Beth El.
From the Torah’s account, it appears perfectly acceptable for Jacob to erect a pillar. Later on, however, the Torah specifically prohibits all pillars of worship, even if they are used to worship God:
“Do not erect a sacred pillar, which the Eternal your God hates” (Deut. 16:22).
What about Jacob’s pillar? The Sages explained that serving God through pillars “was beloved in the time of the Patriarchs, but abhorred in the time of their descendants” (Sifri, Shoftim 146).
Why did the status of pillars change?
To answer this question, we need to examine the difference between a pillar and a sanctuary. A pillar is a large single stone, a focal point of Divine service, around which all may gather. A sanctuary, on the other hand, is a house of worship, a building in which worshippers gather.
Why does it matter whether the worshippers gather around or inside?
The prophet Isaiah envisioned a future time when many nations will say, “Let us go up to God’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob” (2:3). Why will they be attracted to the God of Jacob, as opposed to the God of Abraham or the God of Isaac?
The Sages noted that the unique spiritual service of each of the Avot (Patriarchs) was expressed by the different spatial contexts in which they connected to God:
The Sages interpreted Isaiah’s prophecy as follows: The nations will seek neither the “mountain of Abraham” nor the “field of Isaac,” but rather the “house of Jacob” (Pesachim 88). What does this mean?
When Abraham began introducing the concept of one God into the world, he did not lecture about detailed, organized forms of worship. Abraham did not instruct his followers to observe the 613 mitzvot that govern all aspects of life. Rather, he taught the overall concept of one Creator. The “mountain of Abraham” and the “field of Isaac” are a metaphor for this spiritual message, which, like a mountain or an open field, is accessible to all.
This is also the type of service that is associated with a pillar — a central point around which all may gather.
Jacob, on the other hand, vowed that he would establish a house of worship. While pillars were an acceptable way to worship God in the time of the Avot, Jacob envisioned a future era when the Jewish people would be ready for a higher form of Divine service. The open, accessible service of Abraham would prepare the way for an all-encompassing and detailed service of Torah and mitzvot. The metaphor for Jacob’s service is a house, with walls that enclose and surround the worshippers, binding them to a specific form of worship.
A second aspect of a house is that it serves to differentiate between those who are inside of it and those who are not. Once the Jewish people merited access to this loftier service and entered the elevated sanctuary, it was no longer appropriate for them to relate to God through the abstract service represented by pillars.
Isaiah prophesied that, in the future, the nations will recognize the beauty and depth of a service of God that encompasses both the spiritual and physical realms. They will recognize the importance of good deeds, mitzvot, and Halachic discipline. Then they will declare: simple faith in God and abstract theology are not enough. Let us enter into the sanctuary, into “the House of the God of Jacob.”
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Igrot HaRe\'iyah vol. III, pp. 10-12 (letter 546))