Parsha Mitzvot: Shofetim: Mitzvah 505 – Concept 52 II
“You shall not plant for yourselves an idolatrous tree – any tree – near the Altar of God, your Lord, that you shall make for yourself.” (Deuteronomy 16:21) It was the custom of idolaters to landscape their temples in order to attract worshippers. (Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvot, Negative Commandment 13)
The Kohen Gadol may not wear his golden garments when he enters the Holy of Holies, for we sinned with the Golden Calf. It is inappropriate for him to advocate for us wearing the very material we used to sin. (Rosh Hashana 26) Perhaps there is a similar reason for not planting trees near the Altar: We sinned with a tree and should not have a reminder of that sin near the very place where we ask for forgiveness.
The verse does not simply mention the Altar, which by the way, is also called the Altar of Earth, for in its hollow center was gathered earth from the very place from which God gathered earth to form Adam; it adds, “That you shall make for yourself.” We make the Altar. It is an expression of our ability to create, not only physical things, but even spiritual realities through our physical efforts.
Adam and Eve were driven to create and accomplish. They did not simply eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil because they were rebellious teenagers who wanted the one thing God prohibited. They were driven to be creative forces and were convinced that they had to eat from the Tree in order to access that ability.
The contradiction is not to the Altar, but the Altar that “you shall make.” The contradiction is how we direct our creative drives.