In the beginning of the Torah section of Nitzavim, we read: “You are standing today, all of you, before the L-rd, your G-d: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers – all the men of Israel” (Devarim 29:9). On this verse, the famous medieval commentator known as Rashi comments: “Since Israel was going out from leader to leader, from Moses to Joshua, therefore he made a standing assembly [matzeivah] of them in order to exhort them. And so did Joshua do [before he died]; and so too, Shmuel, who said ‘Stand and I shall contest with you’, when Israel left his hand and entered the hand of Shaul.” Rashi tells us that before a leader would hand over the reigns to the next leader, he would form the people into a “standing assembly” (matzeivah). As to the meaning of forming the people into a matzeivah, the famous latter day Torah scholar and decisor R. Moshe Feinstein, in his discussions on the Torah, introduces an idea based on a homiletic concept.
The Torah commands us, “Do not set up for yourselves a pillar [matzeivah] that the L-rd your G-d despises” [Devarim 16:22]. Homiletic exegetes explain this verse to mean that a person should not make oneself into a matzeivah.
A matzeivah is an altar made of one piece of stone as opposed to a mizbe’ah that is an altar made of many stones. A one-piece stone symbolizes firmness and unchanging – the way the object is now is the way it started and will stay. It is not an accumulation of stones. A person should not make himself into a matzeivah, whereby he is of the position that “this is what I am and there is no more to do”. A human being must always strive to grow. There is no room for being complacent. If we do not grow, we stagnate. We must always better ourselves, “brick by brick” in our pursuit to come nearer to G-d – never making ourselves into a matzeivah.
Our sages interpret the first words of the following Torah section, VaYelekh, “Moses went” as chastisement. Why? This Torah section was written on the last day of Moses’ life (the seventh day of Adar). Even at the age of 120, on the last day of his life, Moses went – he did not stand still. Moses was not complacent. He did not joyfully relinquish the burden of leadership that he bore for so many years. He was busy with and concerned for the nation to the last day. He did not stop moving – to the very end. This is the chastisement – to the rest of us!
On the verse in Zecharia 3:7: “And I will place before you movers [mehalchim] between these stationary people [haOmdim ha’eleh], the Gaon of Vilna comments that the only being that should be spiritually stationary is an angel. This verse teaches that a person can sometimes even be a mover after his death, moving among the omdim, the angels!
If a person toils and achieves while in this world, leaving a legacy, then even after death, he can be a “mover”. The time that a person has on earth is not time to relax. There will be plenty of time to relax… in the next world. While on this world, we must be “movers,” taking the opportunity to grow and accomplish and come ever nearer to G-d.
R. Moshe Feinstein interprets “You are standing [Atem Nitzavim]” as “he made them into a matzeivah.” As he is about to hand the nation over to Joshua, Moses apprises his disciple of the state of the nation. He must take a snapshot of the nation’s present status, telling the following leader where the nation currently stands and giving him the responsibility to take them to the next level. In handing over the nation, it is necessary to have such a measure, a snapshot in time, against which future progress can be compared and calibrated. At this point, therefore, matters cannot be in flux – they cannot be moving. Therefore, they are as a matzeivah.
This is why, throughout Biblical history, every leader would make the people into a matzeivah at the time when he was about to hand over the nation to the next generation’s leadership. This was to create a sort of snapshot, as if to say, “Where do they stand at this moment in time?” The past leader “took stock of the nation” before handing them over to the next leader. This is the meaning of “he made them into a matzeivah”.
It is fine to bring everything to a stand-still, though, when needing to take a snapshot. Otherwise, however, while the video camera of life is rolling, we need to continue to roll with it. We must be continually growing and achieving. We cannot be standing. We must always be moving.