"And you shall make an Altar, a place to burn incense; you shall make it
from acacia wood." [30:1]
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, notes that the other articles in the
Tabernacle were described in the previous parsha, Terumah, whereas the
Incense Altar is only mentioned here. This is even more puzzling because
still later, in Vayakhel and Pikudei (the final weekly readings of the Book
of Exodus), the Torah tells us that Betzalel, the inspired craftsman, made
this Altar, and then made the Altar for sacrifices - and similarly, G-d
commanded Moshe to have the Incense Altar and Sacrificial Altar brought
into the Tabernacle, in that order. If the Incense Altar was to be
constructed first, why was the command given so much later?
Clearly, the Torah "waited" to mention this Altar for a reason. Rabbi
Feinstein says that G-d was waiting until Aaron was designated the Kohen
Gadol, the High Priest, before mentioning the Altar. This, Rabbi Feinstein
explains, is because of the lessons we can learn from the smell of the
Incense - and how they relate to Jewish leadership.
The smell of the incense used in the Tabernacle and then the Temple was
quite powerful, and one could detect the scent a long distance away. The
Talmud in Tractate Tamid says that they could smell the incense from the
Temple as far away as Yericho.
Secondly, odors - whether good or bad - come upon a person even against his
will. One can look away from something, but it is hard to avoid a scent
without moving away from it. The Talmud in Tractate Pesachim discusses the
prohibition against deriving pleasure from idolatry, and the Sages argue
whether a person violates this prohibition if the smell of incense (offered
to idols) comes into the room, and s/he doesn't leave - even without any
intention of going closer to the smell.
Finally, certain smells are like an early warning system - such as the
smell of spoiled food, or, for that matter, the unique odor of melting
silicon which is part and parcel of our electronic era. A perceptive person
must be on the alert, ready to respond to the signals provided by these
Rabbi Feinstein says that a Jewish leader must have three similar
attributes. First of all, he must be able to influence his students even
when they are far away. His reach should be so powerful that he motivates
them even against their will. And finally, he himself must be alert and
perceptive, knowing which directions are appropriate and positive. To mix
metaphors, the Talmud in Tractate Tamid says, "Who is wise? He who sees the
likely outcome of events (literally: that which will be born)."
This explains why the Torah waited for the designation of Aaron as High
Priest before mentioning this Altar. Furthermore, it explains why the
actual construction and installation took precedence over the Sacrificial
Altar - because the quality of a positive influence over others,
encouraging them to move upward, is far more significant than merely
performing obligatory sacrifices!