(19) The Lord said to Moses: Thus shall you say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens:
(20) With Me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.
(21) Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.
(22) And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.
(23) Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.
(19) The Lord said to Moses: As the giving of the Torah is now essentially complete, God gives the people additional commandments designed to preserve the Torah among the Jewish people. These include a clarification of the prohibition of idolatry, the need to establish an organized religious cult (commandments concerning the altar), and maintaining a sense of modesty.
Thus shall you say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens: It is the transcendental nature of the gift of the Torah that is being emphasized here. The Torah comes “from the very heavens.” It is not inherent in ordinary life on earth.
Divinity manifests itself in our world through two channels: transcendentally, through the Torah given from Sinai, and immanently, through nature and the natural course of events and our inner religious intuition. It is important to see both of these manifestations of God in the world, and to maintain a balance in our perception of these two paths.
(20) With Me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver: In this verse, the etnachta (a primary cantillation symbol that divides the verse into two distinct, albeit related, parts) is on the word itti, “Me.” In English, this would be equivalent to putting a semicolon after the words “With Me, therefore, you shall not make.” In other words, this is a prohibition “to place something along with Him” – “to attach something else to the Almighty.”
When other religions do so, i.e., they attach some other image to God, as participating together with Him in His Divinity, Judaism calls this Shituf, “companionism” (christianity, which attaches to God the image of Jesus, is a classic example of a religion based on Shituf).
This prohibition of Shituf, “With Me, therefore, you shall not make,” applies only to Jews – Shituf is not forbidden for non-Jews (for them it is a form of monotheism). The nations of the world are required to observe only the prohibition of absolute idolatry; Shituf is not for them a violation of that prohibition. But the Torah puts more stringent demands on the Jews than on other nations, and Shituf is therefore forbidden to Jews. For them it is fully equivalent to idolatry.
(20) Any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold: Silver and gold represent the material and the spiritual (moral), respectively. The Torah here prohibits deification of material success, as well as deification of human creative spiritual success. Because Divinity is transcendental (“I spoke to you from the very heavens”), nothing earthly – neither images (Shituf), nor any material or spiritual-moral values (“silver and gold”) – is permitted to be identified with Him.
(21) Make for Me an altar: It is important to note that the commandment of constructing an altar was given immediately after the giving of the Torah. It is not, as sometimes alleged, a later reaction to the creation of the golden calf, supposedly needed in order to channel the thirst for sacrifice in a positive direction.
Your sacrifices of well-being: The various types of sacrifices will be discussed in more detail in the opening passages of the book of Leviticus.
Make for Me an altar of earth: The altar was hollow, made of wood, and encased in copper. Its verticals were filled with earth (see 27:1-8).
We note the contrast here. God spoke from Heaven, in a transcendental Revelation. And in response, humans construct an altar from earth, i.e., they transform the world according to Divine ideals.
(22) And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones: Our natural life, and not our “hewn” life, are to become the altar of the Almighty.
For by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them: The literal meaning of charbecha is “your sword.” Although metal (and iron in particular) was in ancient times used to make tools, and for other peaceful and constructive purposes, nonetheless one of its primary applications was weaponry. The Torah here prohibits using metal in the making of the altar, because religious life cannot be built on the basis of violence.
(23) Do not ascend My altar by steps: Instead of stairs, you must ascend the altar with the aid of a gently sloping ramp. Like a natural human gait, spiritual progress occurs gradually.
That your nakedness may not be exposed upon it: The simple meaning is that even in the service of the Almighty, the laws of modesty must always remain a priority. But figuratively: If instead of ascending the altar gradually you try to jump abruptly from one level of spirituality to the next, you are in danger of “exposing your nakedness,” that is, it will become apparent to all that you are not yet ready to ascend to that level.