Two “Auras” in the Mikdash – Rav Yonatan Horovitz
As we once again reach the parshiot which list the details of the Mishkan, the priestly garments and the various vessels employed in the tabernacle, we tend to get lost in the minutiae. However, when one takes a look at the overview of these parshiot one notices that a clear structure emerges.
Last week’s parsha, Terumah, opens with the command to build the Mishkan in order that God will dwell in the midst of the people, “veshachanti betocham”. It then lists the specifics of the various vessels; the ark, table and the menorah. Following this, we find the measurements of the inner structure of the mishkan into which the above vessels will be placed. Then we learn of the altar to be placed in the courtyard and the dimensions of the courtyard itself.
Moving on to this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, we hear about the various priestly garments and how, in a seven-day dedication ceremony, the Kohanim were to be prepared for their role in the Mishkan. The unit is wrapped up with the commandment to bring the “korban tamid”, the daily sacrifice in the morning and evening. Hashem assures us that then He will dwell amongst Am Yisrael, “veshachanti betoch bnei Yisrael” thereby signifying that the mission proclaimed at the outset will have been accomplished.
All of the above testifies to the organized fashion in which the Torah delineates the commandment to build and furnish the Mishkan. But, surprisingly, we find that one vessel, the “mizbeach haketoret”, the incense altar, was “omitted” from the original list. The details of this smaller altar, which was to be housed in the tabernacle in close proximity to the shulchan and menorah, are found at the end of this week’s parsha. Why is the commandment to build this mizbeach left till the end, after what appear to be the concluding verses of this entire section?
Many commentators, medieval and modern have grappled with this question. Two contemporary writers have addressed this subject:
Rav Elchanan Samet, see http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.60/20tetzav.htm, or in the original Hebrewhttp://www.etzion.org.il/vbm/archive/5-parsha/20tetzaveh.rtf, and Rav Menachem Liebtag http://www.tanach.org/shmot/tzaveh.doc.
Rav Samet first undergoes an analysis of the structure of the parshiot and shows that the command to build the mizbeach haketoret does indeed match the style used to describe the details of the other vessels back in parshat Terumah. He then summarizes many of the classical mefarshim and separates them into two groups – those that minimize the role of the incense altar and those who see it as having a pivotal role in the ritual service. Both groups use their ideas to justify why the command to build this mizbaeach is separated from the description of the other vessels. Rav Samet concludes his analysis by taking a form of middle ground. Citing various textual proofs he shows that the incense “is related not just to the Ark but to the encounter that takes place between God and Moshe above the Ark’s covering.”
Rav Samet therefore draws the following conclusions:
“Hence the service of the incense is unlike the other services performed in the Mishkan: it is not a “necessary precondition” like they are, and a person does not thereby serve God. On the contrary: in offering up the incense, man functions as an agent of God. He creates a screen of cloud between himself and the place of God’s revelation, and his action is meant to facilitate for himself (or for others) this encounter with God.
And so we return to the question of the location of the parasha of the incense altar. On the one hand, it is the conclusion of the command to build the Mishkan. Since the main purpose of the Mishkan is the continued revelation of God, the command begins with the Ark – the place of God’s revelation – and ends with the incense altar – man’s action which facilitates this revelation. On the other hand, the Seforno is correct in noting that the incense altar is unlike the other vessels in the Ohel Mo’ed, for its purpose is not “to make the Shekhina dwell in our midst,” nor is the incense service like the offering of sacrifices. Therefore this parasha is not placed among the other vessels of the Mishkan but rather as an appendix.
The incense and the altar upon which it is offered have added importance over and above the other services and vessels because of their direct connection with God’s revelation. On the other hand, they are of lesser significance in relation to the rest because they are not the means of man’s service before God in the same sense that the sacrifices and other services are. In order not to confuse these two different categories of service, the Torah specifically commands, “You shall not offer upon [the incense altar]… a burnt sacrifice or a meal sacrifice, and you shall not pour a drink offering upon it” (30:9). Thus the uniqueness of the mitzva of incense explains the special position of the parasha dealing with the incense altar – a position with dual significance.”
Rav Leibtag’s analysis follows a similar line in the sense that he too examines the structure of the various parshiot that deal with the Mishkan. However, he concludes that the command to build the mizbeach haketoret serves as the opening to a second section which he describes as the “ketoret unit”. Looking at the various laws which appear at the beginning of next week’s parsha, and drawing on a parallel to the main section of the Mishkan parshiot, Rav Liebtag posits that there are two aspects to the Divine encounter with man: the “shechina unit” which describes the ideal relationship between Hashem and Am Yisrael as described at Har Sinai, and the “ketoret unit” which acts as a buffer between God and humans and thus enables man to exist in close proximity to the Divine presence. As Rav Liebtag states:
“With this background we can answer our opening question. One could suggest that by placing the commandment to build themizbach ha-ktoret after the summary psukim at the very end of this unit, the Torah alludes to its unique function as a ‘buffer’ in this covenantal encounter. As – ‘realistically’ – Bnei Yisrael may not be worthy of this encounter, the Torah commands Bnei Yisrael to place the mizbach ktoret in the kodesh to serve as a buffer, to protect them for the Shechina that dwells in the kodesh kedoshim. ”
Whilst we accept the two suggestions cited above to explain the position of the command to build the mizbeach haketoret, we humbly offer a third method of explaining the order of parshiot. If we return to the beginning of this week’s parsha, we find that there is another section which appears to be out of place. Hashem tells Moshe to command Bnei Yisrael to collect oil which will be used to light the menorah in the Mishkan. The menorah will be kindled by Aharon and his sons on a daily basis using this very oil.
Why is this command found here? Surely the natural place to discuss the oil would have been within the framework of the instruction to construct the menorah which is found a couple of chapters earlier. Furthermore, we find an almost identical command in Vayikra (Chapter 24) which basically alleviates the need for the verses here. It is true that the positioning of the command at that point in the book of Vayikra is also mysterious and requires examination but we will suffice with an attempt to explain the pesukim at the opening of our parsha and leave the discussion of those in Vayikra till a later date.
Rav Don Yitzchak Abarbanel in his commentary to Shemot suggests that the Torah tells us of the function of the menorah and the role of Aharon and his sons in lighting it, as a promo to the bulk of the parsha. The very next verses proclaim how the Kohanim were to be separated and special garments were to be woven for them. We may wonder, says Abarbanel, why the Kohanim require these vestments; why it is that the priestly garments are being sewn. The answer is found in those very pesukim at the opening of the parsha. Aharon and his sons are to play an important role in the service performed in the Mishkan; it is their task to kindle the menorah. Therefore, explains Abarbanel, this commandment is placed here prior to the command to weave the “bigdei kehuna” in order that we may comprehend the need for these garments.
Attractive as the opinion of the Abarbanel may be, we must ask one simple question. Why did the Torah choose the lighting of the menorah as the task which defines the role of the kohanim? The priests were to perform many jobs in the mishkan; surely the Torah could just as well have listed any one of a plethora of tasks which could have served the same purpose.
It would seem that there is something specific about the lighting of the menorah which defines the role of the kohanim more than the other tasks they performed in the Mishkan. In order to discover what this may be, we must delve into the realm of derash. It is well known that in various sources, the menorah is described as alluding to the light of the Torah. The aura emitted from the menorah within the Mishkan and subsequently the Bet Hamikdash is to filter outwards to the world outside. This symbolizes the light of Torah, which should emanate from the Mikdash and spread to the entire world. An example of this notion can be found in the words of Midrash Tanchuma at the opening of parshat Beha’alotecha:
Metaphorically speaking, God said to Moshe: “Say to Israel, ‘It is not because I need your light that I tell you to light the lamp, but rather for your own merit…'”
See: when a person builds a house, he makes windows in the house, since he wants the light to enter. So he makes the windows narrow on the outside, and wide on the inside. Why? In order that the light will enter from outside and illuminate inside. But when Shelomo built the Temple, he did not make the windows like this. Rather, he made them narrow on the inside and wide on the outside, in order that the light would emanate from the Temple and illuminate outwards. As it is written, “And for the House he made windows that were wide on the outside and narrow on the inside” (I Melakhim 6:4) – to show that God is all light, and He has no need for your light.
“Why, then, have I commanded you? To give you merit. Therefore it is written, ‘When you kindle the lamps…'”
The Tanchuma actually suggests that the lighting of the menorah is for Am Yisrael’s benefit. However, the central theme in this midrash is that light emanates outwards from the Mikdash. This light could be understood to be symbolized by the menorah and the Kohanim are responsible for spreading this light.
Returning to the mizbeach haketoret, we find an interesting halacha in connection with the burning of the incense. The Gemara in Zevachim states that the incense can be burnt even in the absence of the altar. Why should this be? One could suggest that the notion portrayed by the burning of the incense exists independently of the actual service in the Mikdash. As seen in the opinions cited above, the ketoret represents a certain aspect of man’s relationship with God. In the sense that a pleasant smell and a cloud are created, it seems to symbolize a certain aura, a spiritual or non-tangible connection with God.
When the Torah describes the mitzvah of the ketoret at the end of this week’s parsha, we note that Aharon is commanded to bring the incense twice a day, in the morning and in the evening:
“On it Aharon shall burn aromatic incense; he shall burn it every morning when he tends the lamps. And Aharon shall burn it at twilight when he lights the lamps – a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout the ages.” (Shemot 30:7-8)
What strikes us about these pesukim is that the Torah defines the timeframe for bringing the ketoret based on parallel tasks performed on the menorah. The Torah would seem to be demonstrating a connection between these two aspects of the Mikdash service – ketoret and menorah.
As we have seen, these two rituals also have significance outside of the Mikdash itself. They both represent an aspect of Am Yisrael’s relationship with God. The menorah symbolizes our requirement to spread the light of the Torah; the ketoret symbolizes our personal spiritual connection with The Almighty.
We now return to our original question and find that the explanation as to the position of the command to build the mizbeach haketoret connects to the command to light the menorah. These two mitzvoth form the “bookends” of Parshat Tetzaveh. On the one hand they play an intrinsic part in the Mikdash daily rituals. On the other, they represent two parallel and complimentary aspects of our connection with God. The notion of our relationship with Hashem becomes the framework for the discussion of the priestly garments and the role of the Kohanim. This reminds us that while the Kohanim are holy and dedicated by God, they are a mere vessel, a vehicle through which we, Am Yisrael learn to perform our task; to connect to God and to spread the light of His Torah.
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