Between a Rock and Rocks
Yaakov is running away from an enraged and bloodthirsty Esav, in the direction of Charan. He has a most significant encounter when he stops to rest: He dreams of a ladder reaching up to the Heavens, and perceives the angels of G-d ascending and descending the ladder. This turns out to be a prelude to his first prophetic experience, where Gd promises the Land to Yaakov and his offspring and assures his personal protection until the promise is fulfilled. Upon waking, Yaakov takes the stone from under his head, sets it up as a matzeivah, a memorial stone, and consecrates it with oil.
This is the first matzeivah that appears in the Torah. Later, when the Jewish people are given the Torah, they will be told of the prohibition to erect a matzeivah, which is described as “hated” by the Almighty (Devarim 16:22). By contrast, we read of many a mizbe’ach, altar, in the Torah. The difference is in the quantity of the stones: a matzeivah is an altar that consists of a single stone, whereas a mizbe’ach is an elevation made of many stones.
Before the Torah was given, G-d’s providence revealed itself primarily in the ways of nature and in the destiny of man — that is to say, in what man receives from Gd. Thus, a matzeivah — a single stone — is taken from nature, without any input from man, to commemorate a Divine deed. In this way, man expressed his awareness that G-d alone rules nature and history. Because our forefathers came to know G-d through His rule and providence in nature and history, the matzeivah was a proper expression of homage. At that time, man’s actions revealed more about man than about G-d, for the commandments had not yet been given. At this time, matzeivah was permitted alongside mizbe’ach, which symbolized the devotion of man’s actions to G-d’s will.
But after the Torah was given, G-d is revealed not in what He bestows upon man, but in what man does with this blessing. That is the purpose of the Lawgiving: man’s deeds are to attest to G-d’s reign and glory. This is why matzeivah is prohibited after the giving of Torah.
Worshipping G-d in His power and might alone is no longer pleasing to G-d. In fact, it is hateful to Him. He “hates” any adoration of His power and might that does not also express itself in the persona’s moral subordination to His Law. Recognition of His power and might is measured only by the extent of our devotion to His Will. G-d rejects all homage to Him in nature and history that denies sovereignty over the individual — his heart, thoughts, desires and actions.
Sources: Commentary, Bereishet, 28:18,33:20; Devarim 16:22