Principles From The Parsha: “And You Shall Make The Altar”

Written by Joshua Z. Rokach on . Posted in Torah

In this parsha, G-d tells Moshe the details of the construction of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle housed the Divine Presence as the Children of Israel traveled in the Wilderness. When the Jews eventually settled securely in Israel, the Temple replaced the Tabernacle as G-d’s abode among His chosen people.

The Tabernacle and the Temple bear some relationship to each other. For example, Ezor Eliyahu cites to verse 8 in chapter 25 states, “And they shall make for me a Sanctuary.” The text uses the word מקדש, which can mean Temple. He interprets the verse to connect the sanctity of the Tabernacle of the Wilderness with that of the future Temple in Jerusalem. In addition, this week’s haftarah (Kings 1 5:26-6:13), which we recite at the conclusion of the parsha, discusses the construction of Solomon’s Temple.


Other connections exist between the Tabernacle and Temple. For example, in chapter 27, Verse 1 of this parsha, G-d commands Moshe to construct “the” altar for the Tabernacle. Actually, both the Tabernacle and the Temple contained two altars. In the Tabernacle, the Altar of Copper, which Chapter 27 discusses, served as the venue for sacrifices. The other, the Altar of Gold, which we read about in the next parsha (chapter 30), served as the platform for the High Priest to burn incense twice daily. (On Yom Kippur, he brought sacrifices there as well, but the High Priest used the altar for burning incense, even on Yom Kippur.)

In the Temple, the Altar of Copper becomes the Inner Altar. A more permanent structure than the one the Levites dismantled and set up constantly in the Wilderness, the altar which King Shlomo built consisted of stones. The Altar of Gold becomes known as the Outer Altar because it stood outside the Temple building.

Rabbi Yissachar Dov of Belz (1854-1926) explained why we call the place of burning incense an altar, though for all but one day of the year, no one brought a sacrifice there. He said that the Inner Altar atoned for the sins of the flesh. The Outer Altar atoned for sins of the spirit. Incense, he said, pleases the soul, while meat and meal please the body.

Aside from these differences, a puzzling distinction exists between the two altars. We read earlier in connection with the altar on which the priests brought sacrifices (the Inner Altar) “[When] you make Me an altar of stones, you shall not build it of hewn [stones] for you would have lifted your sword over [the altar] and profaned it.” Rashi, quoting the Mishna (Middot 3:4), explains why.

The Torah forbids smoothing the stones with an axe because iron, from which one fashions the tool’s blade as well as other weapons, symbolizes war. The Inner Altar, which facilitates atonement, epitomizes peace between man and G-d. Or, as the Mishna states, iron was created to shorten life and the altar was created to extend it.

This restriction establishes the principle that bringing materials of destruction into creating the Inner Altar desecrates the Temple. Evil and holiness do not mix. The one profanes the other. Yet, with respect to the Altar of Gold, and later the Outer Altar, we see a practice which seems to contradict that tenet.

In the parsha of Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:34), the Torah records the ingredients of the incense, which the High Priest burned on the Altar of Gold in the Tabernacle and the Outer Altar in the Temple. Among the fragrances, such as frankincense, G-d requires galbanum (חלבנה).

Rashi points out that, unlike the other spices in the incense, galbanum gives off a foul odor. Why does incense, which, as Rabbi Yissachar Dov pointed out, should please the soul, require such a noisome component? Rashi answers that galbanum symbolizes sinners. He goes on to say, “The Torah counted [the foul-smelling galbanum] among the ingredients of the incense [the High Priest burned on the altar] to teach us that we should not disregard [evil doers among our people and] include in our fasts and prayers the sinners of Israel along with us.”

We know from the Talmud that the expression “sinners of Israel” refers to hard-core, unrepentant criminals. When it comes to incense, we mix evil and holiness.

Why do the evils of war and murder negate the purpose of the atonement the Inner Altar offers, but the evil of the sinners of Israel bolsters the atonement the Outer Altar offers? Why go to such a great length to prohibit iron tools, even if never used in a war, but, in mixing the incense, go out of our way to parade before G-d the evildoers among us who stick steadfastly to their ways?

Indeed, logically, the Torah should allow an axe to smooth the stones of the altar. When hewing the stones, the worker is doing a good thing. He is making the altar usable. The High Priest should not include galbanum in the incense. Doing so amounts to a bad thing. Logically, we should pray for the righteous and those who seek righteousness. However, including reprobates in the incense service would only incite G-d’s wrath.

The answer–– and the lesson for us–– lies in the fact that the Torah tells us to ignore the moment and focus on the big picture. Yes, hewing stones for the altar creates a benefit. (It would have saved G-d from having to perform a miracle and create the Shamir to smooth the stones. See, Ethics of the Fathers 5:9). However, taking a longer view, using the axe brings war into a monument of peace. It uses an instrument of strife to foster reconciliation.

Yes, when we mix galbanum into the incense the High Priest offers to G-d, the sinners the spice symbolizes have strayed beyond the pale. However, taking the longer view, these people have the potential to repent. We pray that G-d gives them the opportunity to do that and that they will see the light.

We must follow the same approach in our lives. In my youth, a businessman wrote a best-seller, “Winning through Intimidation.” As intoxicating as the idea sounds, it does not work in the long term. Backing people into a corner, or governing through fear, leads the victims to lash out and everyone loses. Better to recall the words of our Sages (Ethics of the Fathers 4:3): “Do not slight any person [even those over whom you have control] for every person has his day.”

Joshua Zev Rokach is gabbai of the Nusach Sefard Minyan at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah in Kemp Mill and former gabbai of the main minyan at Shomrei Emunah and at Kesher Israel in Georgetown. He has taught a weekly Talmud class at both synagogues and served as an officer and a member of the Board of Directors of both shuls. A retired attorney, Joshua has lived in the Greater Washington area since 1976 and in Kemp Mill since 1986.