The second half of Sefer Shmot, from parshat Truma until the end, focuses on the mishkan. The structure is fairly straightforward:
Truma – the mishkan and its vessels
Tetzave – the clothing of the Kohanim
Ki Tisa – miscellaneous issues about the mishkan, and the golden calf
Vayakhel – the implementation of Truma
Pekudi – the implementation of Tetzave
As such, we read in parshat Truma about the aron, shulchan, menorah and outer altar. However the discussion of the inner altar (also the golden altar or the altar of the incense) appears at the very end of Tetzave, just after what seems to be the conclusion of the entire discussion which began for us in parshat Truma. This whole section about the inner altar seems to be very out of place.
Many of the commentaries understood this to be indicative of the unique nature of this particular vessel, but each one viewed the anomaly in their own way. I bring you their ideas here, not to draw a definitive conclusion, but to share something of the way each approached the nature of the mishkan/mikdash and the avoda that took place therein.
The Rambam, in the 3rd section of his Guide to the Perplexed (chapter 45), has a very radical view of this mizbeach. He explains that the only purpose of the incense is to serve as a deodorizer. He points out that, given the animal sacrifices in the Mikdash, the stench must have been very powerful. As it is only natural to avoid such places that disturb our senses the result would have been that the mikdash would be avoided by all and the disgrace would have been terrible. In order to combat the odor, the Torah mandated the fragrant incense.
This view of the Rambam is clearly peculiar and not in line with standard interpretation. It is hard to reconcile his position with the lofty status of the incense in many other contexts, such as on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies and as used to stop the plague in the desert. It also seems strange to assign such a mundane reason to one of the vessels of the mishkan. In addition, one can note that even were we to accept the Rambam’s thesis it is still problematic as the major cause of such disturbing odors would have been in the courtyard, where the animal sacrifices were performed while the incense altar was inside the building itself.
Chazal do not hint at such a need for the incense, and as a matter of fact, they list amongst the ten miracles that occurred regularly in the mikdash the fact that a fly was never seen despite all the meat processing.
(In order to fully understand the comments of the Rambam on this matter we need to broaden our view and see how he relates to all of elements of the mikdash. The Rambam consistently downgrades each and every element in the “Guide”, often in direct contradiction with what he wrote in his halachic work, Mishne Torah. Many have written on this topic, specifically in the most radical part where the Rambam writes that the entire endeavour of animal sacrifice was only a concession to the prevailing human nature at the time, but is not what Hashem really wants. The Rambam, in both Hilchot Melachim and at the end of Hilchot Meila, directly contradicts these ideas. It is beyond the scope of today’s shiur to solve this puzzle.)
If we return to our original question, it would seem obvious that the placement of the account of the mizbeach is exactly where it belongs. It is not one of the central features, deserving of being listed in parshat Truma, rather it is given a footnote at the end of tetzvah to make clear its more peripheral nature.
The Sforno was directly bothered by our question and he writes that the placement of the description at the end of our parsha has to do with the nature of the mizbeach.
“This mizbeach was not listed with the other vessels in parshat Truma because its purpose was not to establish a place for God’s presence, as was the purpose of the other vessels … nor was it designed to function as part of the sacrifices, rather it is to show respect for God at the time that we approach him, day and night by means of the incense.”
The mishkan/mikdash has two major functions, a dwelling place for the Shechina and the place that man can approach God. This mizbeach did not fit into either category. The incense itself is not a sacrifice but it overall compliments the service of Hashem. Once again, given its secondary role in the scheme of things, it seems very justifiable to place it in its footnote position.
The GRA (Vilna Gaon) has us expand our horizons past the end of this week’s parsha and draws a very clear line between the two functions of the mishkan/mikdash that we mentioned above. Parshat Tetzave ends the description of the mishkan as the dwelling place of God. There is a very clear structure in the last two parshiot. Truma opened with the verse “make me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst them” and it closes in Tetzva with (29:45) “I will dwell amongst Bnei Yisrael”. The bookends are clear and they define the literary unit.
The next section deal with the mizbeach that we are focusing on (30:1-10) and then in next week’s parsha (30:11-16) we read about the money that was given to the mishkan (the ½ shekel). In the onset of Ki Tisa the major word is “kapara”- atonement. This is already an entirely new concept and one that has not been mentioned in Truma/Tetzave. Here we find the mishkan/mikdash as a vehicle through which we are able to “gain something”- atonement- on the human level. The Mishkan is not only a dwelling place for God but as well a place that a human being can repair his relationship with Him.
The opinion of the GRA is very interesting and refocuses our attention on these verses. In fact they are not a ‘P.S.’ at the end of Truma/Tetzave but rather the start of Ki Tisa. (The actual division of the parshiot by week is not an ancient division and should not necessarily dictate our interpretation of things.)
The advantage of the GRA’s position is that we can clearly see why the incense would have been critical in stopping the plague in the desert and even more so we understand its central role in the Yom Kippur service (which by its very name indicates the centrality of Kapara).
On the other hand I think that we need to note that the Torah itself does not use the term kapara when it comes to the mizbeach. The GRA must have understood that the combination of the occurrences of incense in other places together with the strange placement of the pesukim that we have been studying yielded his conclusion.