By Rabbi Moshe Mayerfeld
The tragic and untimely passing of Robin Williams raises many important issues which society is dealing with.
Williams inspired so many through his work and gave pause for thought in his death. Perhaps he is best known for teaching a whole new generation the meaning of the Latin words from the poet Horace – carpe diem (seize the day).
This lesson is crucial. In fact, it appears in our parsha, written almost 1,500 years before the Odes. We learn of the prohibition of making a matzevah or pillar; a tall single stone – even in our service to God – for it is hated by the Creator.
The great medieval commentator Rashi explains that even though it was endearing to God during the days of our forefathers, since it had become the way of the Canaanite idolaters, we are required to stay away from its use.
This is rather hard to comprehend when you compare it to many other things, such as an altar that the Canaanites use as well, yet we are allowed to use an altar in the correct context. It appears the difference is as follows: a pillar is of a fixed size.
It may be tall in structure, but it cannot change or grow in its form. An altar is made from many layers of stones, bricks or even earth. This symbolises the various levels of achievement one can accomplish. One can keep building and growing, adding ‘stones’ to his life’s path.
One must realise that every road leads us to potential for greater spiritual progress, a constant battle for increased sanctity. Indeed, that type of symbol is beloved by God. Something that represents spiritual status quo, something that holds people to being static and stable, that is the path of an inanimate god. It is likened to the Canaanite idol worship, and is hated and forbidden.
This is also the reason that, after someone passes on from this world (you should all be blessed to live until 120), we refer to the stone placed on one’s burial place as a matzeva, to indicate that one has attained his maximum degree of achievement in this world and it is no longer possible to go higher. However, during one’s life, the Torah implores us to be a mizbeach, an altar, constantly growing, striving to be better each day. Carpe diem.
• Rabbi Mayerfeld is Director of Aish UK and rabbi at Shomrei Hadath Synagogue. Twitter: @mmayerfeld