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An Altar-ation

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

The parshiot that enumerate basically the entire Mishkan, its contents and clothing for the Kohanim are Terumah and TeTzaveh (which convey how to build it and sew them, respectively) and Va’Yaqel and Pekudei (which describe the actual building and sewing). Therefore, Terumah and Va’Yaqel list the Mishkan structure and the vessels within it and TeTzaveh and Pekudei deal with the clothing. The only significant aberration to this formula is found in this week’s parsha. The one vessel left out of Terumah (the vessels parsha) last week that is strangely included in this week’s parsha (the clothing parsha) is the Mizbeach HaZahav, the golden altar. To drive home this seeming purposeful misplacement, when the vessels are listed again, during the actual building in Va’Yaqel, this altar is listed in its ‘rightful’ place, alongside all the other vessels, which makes our question even more poignant: why was the golden altar, which logically should have been placed in last week’s parsha, included in this week’s instead?

There are two particulars of the Mizbeach HaZahav that must be mentioned before we answer our question. 1) The ‘mis-placement’ of its mention is specifically at the end of this week’s parsha, i.e. at the conclusion of the two-parsha, complete description of the Mishkan and Kohain clothing (this ‘conclusion’ is expressly relayed by the repetition of the verse that began the entire Mishkan description at the beginning of Terumah: ‘And I will dwell amongst Bnei Yisrael…’); 2) unlike the Mizbeach HaNechoshet, the large bronze altar upon which the animal korbanot were brought, the Mizbeach HaZahav was fairly small (only about three feet high) and was only used for burning the special mixture of Ketoret spices (and specifically commanded not be used for ‘olah, minchah and libations’). How do these particulars assist in answering our conundrum?

Its placement at the end of the parsha informs us that we are to understand that the Mizbeach HaZahav is to be used as the concluding idea to the entire Mishkan construction instruction. In other words, although during the actual, technical building in Va’Yaqel the altar is in its rightful place, when it is first described within the section that introduces these Divinely significant vessels and their symbolic lessons therein, God makes sure to place the Mizbeach HaZahav’s ‘lesson’ as the final thought. Why? This mizbeach (especially in contrast to the other) is physically…insignificant: its size is underwhelming; also, the burning of mere spices is less dramatic than the burning of the ‘meaty’ animal korbanot. However, the results of this mizbeach are awesome: the smoke that arises from this altar, placed in the unique Kodesh section, rises straight up, blanketing the heavens above it. In other words, through the minimizing of its physical presence, the message of this altar is free to focus directly on the ‘elevated’ results. And this is the lesson that needed to be taught at the conclusion of the Mishkan’s descriptions: after all the detailed and opulent descriptions of sizes, materials and designs, the Mizbeach HaZahav is stated to ensure Bnei Yisrael (and we) truly understand the ultimate lesson of this monumental project – in the end, it is not about how much gold was shaped or what complex images were woven into the curtains, but how these objects were used. At the beginning of the Mishkan’s descriptions, God stated “And they will make for Me a Temple and I will dwell amongst them”; if Bnei Yisrael build this temple for God, inviting Him into their realm, expressing their desire for His presence, then He will respond and dwell amongst themnot the building itself, but within the nation who so desired this Divine presence in their midst as expressed through the physical building of the Mishkan.

This understanding is further expressed by the Torah through its blatant comparative description to the Aron. This equating of the Mizbeach HaZahav and the Aron are found in three instances: 1) According to the Ibn Ezra, they were the only two vessels that shared the same height (2 amot); 2) during Yom Kippur, both vessels were sprinkled with blood to affect atonement for Bnei Yisrael; 3) unlike the Shulchan and the Menorah which were placed simply, ‘michutz la’parochet’, ‘outside the dividing curtain’, the Mizbeach HaZahav was placed, ‘lifnei ha’parochet’, ‘before the dividing curtain that is on the Aron of testimony, before the kaporet that is on the testimony where I will meet with you.’ These three instances serve to establish a concrete relationship between these two vessels. The Aron is the paradigmatic example of a physical vessel’s purpose representing the more significant intangible attribute; the Aron, never seen, was the place where God met with Bnei Yisrael and where the luchot, the symbol of the eternal contract between Him and Bnei Yisrael were placed. The Torah purposefully equating the Mizbeach HaZahav and the Aron further demonstrates the true character of this golden altar as described above.

Too often we become focused on the physical actions of a particular mitzvah or religious behavior and lose sight of the more important spiritual awareness that these actions are there to assist in expressing. Just as God wanted the Temple built only as a representation of their desire for His presence, as learned through the purposeful placement of the Mizbeach HaZahav in this week’s parsha, so too, in our daily performance of His commandments, we must remember to focus our awareness onto what the action means to our relationship with God as opposed to concentrating too heavily on the execution of the physical act itself.




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