The parasha deals with the 10 Commandments and God's revelation on Mount Sinai. It concludes with some additional commandments including (a) not making images, gods of silver and gold, …………., (b) when making an altar of stones one may not cut the stones with iron tools, and that (c) steps may not be used to ascend to the altar, 'so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it.' The prohibition of idolatry has already being mentioned in the 10 commandments, so what is the Torah adding here.? The Sages explain that only 2 golden statues of the ' cherubs' that were placed upon the Ark could be made, not more or less and only from gold, not from silver. Replicas could not be made to enhance religious worship. Any deviation from the divine commandment concerning the cherubs in the tabernacle would also be considered as an act of idolatry. We are taught that the spectrum of the prohibition of idolatry goes way beyond the classic idol worship but it expresses an internal feeling of commitment to the Divine will and authority and certainly not feeling a touch of arrogance of being the one who decides how to worship. The altar of stones may not be cut from iron tools, for iron, as the raw material of the sword shortens life, while the Altar offers people the opportunity of repentance and atonement lengthens life. Our sensitivity to the command they shall not to murder goes beyond the act of murder. We give expression to this internal feeling and sensitivity to the act of murder by not using iron in the making of the stones for the altar. The reason why steps could not be used to ascend to the altar, but instead a 'ramp' should be made for this purpose, is that when using steps, the raising of the legs would ' seem to ' expose their private parts to the steps, even though the priest-kohen wore trousers. A style of walking that would expose the steps to immodesty if the person was not fully dressed in the shows a lack of modesty and contempt for the altar. The 10 commandments talks about the prohibition of adultery- sexual immorality, but a sensitivity to sexual immorality makes one refrain from any hint of immodesty. The truth is that when the Torah and specifically here by the 10 Commandments talks about idolatry, murder and adultery – sexual immodesty it refers to them in widest terms as we have explained the last commandments of this parasha. It is only when the value underlying the prohibitions of idolatry, murder and sexual immorality is internalized do these prohibitions take on new meaning.
The sages note that if the Torah demands a certain sensitivity and respect for inanimate objects – the stones and the ramp of the altar, how much more so we should be sensitive to the feelings of other people. We need to be aware of how we are able to create atmosphere and create an environment by our presence and at the same time we can destroy an atmosphere or have a negative impact on the environment. The environment is important because it supports our internal feelings, and our intrinsic values that are inspired by the Torah. The problem is when the environment and ' system ' do not support the internal values that we want to pass on to our children. In society the conservatives talk about the individual's responsibility to be accountable for their own achievements as man has the freedom to choose. The socialists focus more on the environment and privilege and how that impacts on the individual. The Torah focuses both on the community- the environment and that the individual and people do well when the environment is supportive.
In the home and school, parents and teachers create the 'system and environment ' which drives behavior and learning. Learning is driven by our need to control and so we use extrinsic motivators like tests, grades, degrees and diplomas, prizes, honor rolls, rewards and competition. Our need for control is even greater when it comes to behavior. Kids are motivated to behave by a discipline code that manipulates and reinforces their behavior with rewards, punishments, consequences and praise. Character education stresses the truth, integrity, kindness, consideration, altruism , responsibility and caring , commitment, doing teshuva, repenting, learning from mistakes , making amends grit, self –discipline etc . Kids are told that they should develop a love for learning and become life-long learners. The problem is we expect noble character and a love for learning, but our system and the environment focuses on control and it leads kids to try and get the best grade in the easiest possible way, learn only if it is on the test, focus on the grade and not on the learning, see others as obstacles in their way in the competitive environment rather than learning from other kids and supporting them in a cooperative learning environment. It does not teach that ' mistakes are our friends ' and that's how learning takes place. The learning has certainly no inherent value and no internalization will take place. It is not relevant to them and they are certainly not involved in making meaning of the world around them. Teachers want to hear answers that they consider are right rather than learning in parallel with kids focus on the kid's thinking and his perspective. The focus on grit, self –discipline and responsibility is more about the teacher's need for control and compliance. Responsibility is taught not by teaching kids to follow instructions but by participating in the decision making process, generating solutions and solving problems in a collaborative way , based on mutually satisfying solutions. The discipline code promotes lying to avoid punishment or even not offering help when one has injured somebody so as not to be caught. It teaches that the problem is being caught – the consequences, not the consequences and impact that one's actions have on others. The discipline code teaches kids to ask – what will I get if I do this or what will be done to me – what's in it for me. It certainly does not teach kids to reflect on what type of people they want to be and if their actions reflect their true values and inner beings. When consequences are imposed we take away the child's chance to engage in an autonomous way in the moral act of restitution and reparation.
The lesson from the altar and ramp and the demands for a ' walking style' that is modest teaches us that the environment and system to need support values and character growth. Unfortunately the parenting and educational environment and system negates the very values we are trying to teach and instill in our kids and students