In a repeat of a prohibition we’ve seen before, Moshe explains that we cannot plant an “Ashera” tree, a form of idol worship. This time, however, the difference is in its context, as the verse continues: “Do not plant an Ashera- or any- tree next to the altar you made for G-d” (16:21). What is the verse trying to portray when including the placement of the tree next to an altar? And why use specifically an Ashera tree as the example?
Many commentaries’ explanation point is the same general direction: When it comes to our commitment to Hashem, we have to be clear-eyed as to what it’s all about. As we recall from just two weeks ago, “what does Gd want from you but to fear Him & love Him” (10:12). While we do try to express the beauty of Torah and Mitzvot through buying a nice etrog or displaying art in our Synagogues, their purpose must be well-defined. They themselves are nice as expressions of what is important, but they cannot substitute for our commitment.
This is the message of the verse. The model for this idea is the Ashera tree, one which is worshipped itself. The altar represents our complete commitment to Gd through the “sacrifices” -of ourselves, symbolically- and we must know that that is the entirety of what is needed. The prohibition of the Ashera in this context is to serve as a symbol for us to stay in focus. We do not value beauty more than that which expresses our commitment, but it itself is not the commitment.
In a simplistic parallel, we can think of giving gifts to those that we’re close to. Imagine giving flowers to a spouse while not looking them in the eye. Imagine giving an expensive birthday gift with no accompanying message. The beauty may be there, but the love isn’t. What is truly important is the care and commitment that is expressed by the gift, not the gift itself. When we consider our personal altars as we approach the world’s birthday on Rosh Hashana, let us keep in mind not only what we are giving to Gd, but also what messages we’re giving with it.