When reviewing the parshiyos of Terumah and Tetzaveh, it becomes immediately evident that a specific order is being followed. Parshas Terumah introduces the various kelim (utensils) of the Mishkan, along with their attributes and dimensions, while Tetzaveh lists the bigdei kodesh (priestly garments) of the cohanim. This sequence would seem to be quite appropriate. The Mishkan was prepared to be the house of Hashem, the place where the Shechina (divine presence) rested. Therefore, first the Mishkan was prepared, with all its kelim, followed by a description of the individual garments of the cohanim who would frequent the ‘house’ of Hashem.
The Ramban points out that there is one prominent exception to this rule – the mizbayach hazhav. The golden altar is listed at the very end of this week’s parsha (Shmos 30:1) – after all of the bigdei kehunah. The Ramban notes this departure from the orderly sequence of the rest of the kelim and begadim. He then adds to the question by noting that in Parshas Vayakhel, where all the kelim of the Mishkan are listed a second time, the mizbayach haketores is presented along with all the others. Why, then, does the Torah depart from this logical sequence during the initial introduction of the kelim?
Living Among Us
The Ramban explains the order of events in a different light. He points to the fact that the first mention of the presence of Hashem was only once the Mishkan was prepared and the kohanim were dressed for their service. Hashem informs us that He will rest among us, “V’nikdash b’chvodi” (And the Mishkan shall be sanctified through My honor, Shmos 29:43) and “V’shachanti b’soch Bnei Yisroel” (I shall rest among the Jews, Shmos 29:45). Only then, in His presence, explains the Ramban, was the stage set for the ultimate avodah, the ktores. Therefore, the Torah first presents the Mishkan, its kelim, and the garments of the cohanim. This resulted in the presence of the Shechina, and only then were the ketores offered. When we review the kelim of the Mishkan in Vayakhel, however, all of them are listed together, including the golden altar.
I would like to offer an additional insight. We are familiar, through the timeless words of Shimon HaTzadik, with the concept that there are three underpinnings of the world (Avos 1:2) “Al shlosha devarim haolam omed, al haTorah, al ho’avodah, v’al gemilus chasadim” (The World depends on three things; the learning of Torah, the service of Hashem, and on acts of kindness). I would like to propose that the three kelim placed in the Ohel Moed, the outer chamber of the Mishkan, corresponded to these attributes. The Menorah represents the light of the Torah. The Shulchan (table) signifies material wealth and the potential for contributing to acts of kindness. The golden altar represents the service of the heart, avodah.
The gemorah informs us “Haorotzeh sh’yachkim yadrim…(Bava Basra 25a) – If one wants to become a wise person, he should turn slightly to the left [during his prayer], and if one wants to become wealthy, one should turn slightly to the right. The implication is that turning slightly towards the Menorah would direct a person’s heart towards Torah, while turning one’s thoughts towards the Shulchan would direct the person towards material wealth.
What if one turned in neither direction? Perhaps the argument could be made that this would represent the humble service of Hashem – the ketores on the mizbayach hazahav.
Of Copper and Gold
There was a much larger mizbayach that was placed outside the Mishkan in the outer courtyard. It was made of copper, and the animal sacrifices were brought upon it. It was filled with earth, representing the weak, mortal element of man that is prone to sin and temptation. There, sacrifices were offered to forgive for our individual and collective inequities.
The golden altar, on the other hand, was placed inside the Mishkan, hidden from the view of all except for a few cohanim. It was hollow, and had a golden roof. This perhaps would represent the space that we need to leave for the presence of Hashem in each of our hearts, as Dovid Hamelech movingly states in Tehillim (109:22), “v’lebi cholal b’kirbi – My heart was ‘hollow’ inside me.”
While the outer mizbayach was massive in size, the dimensions of the inner altar were two amos high, one amah long, and one amah wide. On many occasions, the Gemorah mentions that an average person is three cubits in height and occupies a square of one cubit by one cubit. Excluding the head, which represents Torah, and the limbs, which do acts of kindness, the golden altar in almost exactly the size of the torso of our bodies – where our hearts reside.
As the Jews in the desert finished preparing the various utensils of the Mishkan and the garments of the kohanim, they were blessed with the presence of the Shechina. They now arrived at the central point of all this preparatory activity – the ketores. This was the humble service of Hashem; that thin, noiseless plume of smoke that rose to the very heavens, and provided a fragrant aroma to all of Yerushalayim. Away from the crush of the crowd and the noise of the karbonos being brought, true greatness occurred. The Jews directed their hearts to their Father in heaven. Their spirits soared to join Him and elevate their lives.
Three times each day, we are offered the opportunity to temporarily depart from the distractions of our daily lives and bring the Shechina of Hashem to our hearts – in the immortal words of Rav Yehudah HaChassid, “Bilvavi Mishkan evneh (I will build a Mishkan in my heart).
Rabbi Horowitz is the founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam in Monsey, NY, as well as the founder and Program Director of Agudath Israel's Project Y.E.S. (Youth Enrichment Services), which helps at-risk teens and their parents. He is a popular lecturer on teaching and parenting topics in communities around the world, and is the author of several best-selling parenting tape and CD sets. For more information on Rabbi Horowitz's parenting tapes, visit http://www.rabbihorowitz.com/ or call 845-352-7100 X 133.