The beginning of the parsha brings together a number of different topics: at first we read about the judges who sit in the courts (i.e., the sphere of justice), then we read of the prohibition of planting “ashera” trees (associated with idolatry) near the stone altar (sacrifices). The connection between these subjects is not immediately apparent, and various commentators have proposed different explanations as to why they are juxtaposed.
The Meshekh Hokhma provides a most interesting explanation, shedding new light on the essence of law, idolatry and sacrifices. The subject of sacrifices has given rise to much discussion and philosophizing as to its aim and purpose in a person’s religious world, as well as to the “needs”, as it were, of Hashem Himself. The Meshekh Hokhma emphasizes that the essential point concerning sacrifices is that we must understand that Hashem, for His part, has absolutely no need for them – or, for that matter, for anything else – at all. This fact finds expression in the requirement that the altar, upon which the sacrifices are offered, be constructed from (inanimate) stones, rather than from (organic) wood. (The Meshekh Hokhma relies here on a law deduced elsewhere, with the juxtaposition of the “ashera” tree and the altar teaching that the altar must be made of stone, rather than wood.) An inanimate object has no need for anything external, whereas organic vegetation needs water and light. The stone altar declares, by its very essence, that Hashem has no need for our sacrifices, and hence their purpose must be related to man.
Now it is clear why we may not plant “ashera” trees next to the altar: because trees and wood symbolize the complete opposite from stone with regard to Hashem’s “needs” and man’s needs. Thus this tree becomes an object of idolatry, because an attitude towards a god that has a need for something is foreign to our concept of Hashem, Who is perfect.
Concerning justice, the Meshekh Hokhma extends his idea and suggests that the ability to judge fairly and righteously depends on the judge’s aim. To the extent that the judge wants to render a true judgment with no extraneous considerations, he will be successful. But if extraneous elements enter into his judgment, he will not be able to reach a true and just ruling. To the extent that he has a need for something for the purposes of his judgment – such as honor, or money – his aim becomes the attainment of that external thing, rather than a true judgment in the case before him. A judge must resemble Hashem in that he has no need to receive anything external; he must aspire only to the truth.
The Meshekh Hokhma, then, connects the three subjects – justice, idolatry, and sacrifices – and regards them as symbols of ideas concerning Hashem and man. According to his view, law and sacrifices are two spheres that create a closeness or reflection between Hashem and man – justice pertaining to inter-personal matters, and sacrifices pertaining to matters between man and Hashem (idolatry creates distance). For this reason these subjects are juxtaposed in the parsha in order that we may note the common ideas and to perceive the similarity that should exist between the judge and Hashem.