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“And if (when) you will make for Me an Altar of stones, do not build them hewn, for you will have raised your sword over it and desecrated it” (Shemos 20:22).
Rashi brings the words of Rabbi Yishmael who said that although the Hebrew word im, translated “if”, usually refers to some action the doing of which is optional, there are three exceptions and this passage is one of them. The Torah does not mean to say, “if you will make for Me an Altar of stones,” but, rather, “when you will make for Me an Altar of stones.” This is so, since it is actually obligatory to build an altar of stone, as it says (Devarim 27:6), "Of whole stones you shall build the Altar of Hashem your G-d."
The Gaon, Harav Moshe Feinstein ztvk”l, asked why does the Torah write “if” when it really means “when”? Why doesn’t the torah simply write “when”?
Reb Moshe answered that although in the halachic interpretation (referring to the practical laws of building the Temple), it is obligatory to build the Alter of stone; in the homiletic interpretation it is different. The Gemara tells us that the tzaddik (righteous, pious person) is referred to as an alter since he sacrifices his Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) before the Almighty. In this vein, said Reb Moshe, the Torah indicates that to be a tzaddik, one has to be like stone; strong and immovable in the face of all the trials and tribulations he will surely face throughout his life. However, one is not required to be a tzaddik. It is a privilege but not an obligation. He is only required to be a law-abiding Jew. Therefore, the Torah writes its advice in the form of choice rather than obligation: “If” you desire to be an Alter, a tzaddik, you must be like stone. Only thus will you attain your goal.
Relatively, we can apply this great lesson to our own lives. Even if we have not chosen to be a tzaddik, totally dedicated to Spirituality, we probably want to excel in whatever we yearn to be. It is important to realize that there will be many obstacles in the way to success, and unless we will be like stone, we probably won’t make it. One of the important rules of success is never to quit; no matter how hard it may seem to continue and no matter how many times we may have stumbled. The quitter will never get too far in life. Only with tremendous perseverance can a person reach that which he aspires to be.
A good friend, Avi Shulman, of Monsey, New York, who teaches motivation and goal orientation, once gave me a copy of a poem which was hanging on his bulletin board. I, in turn, have passed it on to many others who have reaped great benefit from it. I share it with you today, in the hope that that you, too, will appreciate it; will follow its wise advice; and will succeed in whatever your heart desires.
When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
Life is queer with its twists and turns,
Often the struggler has given up
Success is failure turned inside out –
Shema Yisrael Torah Network