Tetzaveh ends with a command to make an additional altar, this time one from gold. Unlike the bronze altar described in last week’s portion, this altar is only for the burning of incense by the priesthood. The two altars, upon a closer examination, have very different roles and purposes.
“You shall make an Alter on which to bring incense up in smoke, of acacia wood shall you make it. Its length a cubit; and its width a cubit – it shall be square – and its height two cubits; from it shall its horns be. You shall cover it with pure gold, its roof and its walls all around, and its horns, and you shall make for it a gold crown, all around.”
“Upon it shall Aaron bring the spice incense up in smoke, every morning, when he cleans the lamps he shall bring it up in smoke. And when Aaron kindles the lamps in the afternoon he shall bring it up in smoke, continual incense before HaShem, for your generations.”Exodus 30:1-3, 7-8 The Chumash
What seems strange is the placement of this specific part of the Mishkan’s production. We know that Torah regularly places emphasis on things based on their order within the text. It’s also known that the composition material is extremely significant as well. So why, here at the very end of the parsha, does this Altar made of gold finally make an appearance?
Rabbi Obidiah ben Yaakov, (1475-1550) known in the commentaries simply as Sforno, offers some insight to this question. Sforno, like Rashi, is known for his interpretations that stick close to the literal text and do not stray into mystical understandings. During his lifetime he was well known and taught not only Jews, but Roman gentiles about the Tanach.
“Sforno suggests that the Incense Altar was different from the other parts of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle structure brought God’s glory to the nation (25:8-9) and the sacrificial offering created the “meeting place” of God and Israel (29:43). Once the Tabernacle and its service brought His Presence to Israel, the incense was the prescribed means to welcome the King and show Him honor. Therefore, because the Incense Altar was necessitated by the successful completion of the entire complex, it is mentioned at the very end.”The Chumash, pg 483
If we use Sforno’s understanding as a starting point, we can examine what else was taking place near this Altar. It was located inside the actual Mishkan, separated from public view. Walking through the partition from the outer courtyard, the Menorah stood to the left and the Shulchan, or the Showbread Table, to the right. In the middle of this 20 by 10 cubit space stood the Golden Altar. Just beyond that the Holy of Holies housed the Ark, separated once more by a partition.
It was in this space that Aaron would come, daily, to keep the lights of the Menorah burning. This space is also where the bread would be changed weekly and placed on the Shulchan. It’s important to note, however, that the services that took place here were not reserved for just the Kohen Ha Gadol, the High Priest. This was to be a job to be undertaken by the priesthood as a whole, but may single out Aaron due to the mention of the Yom Kippur service listed in verse ten. Unlike the outer court, this space was a private space, not seen by the general public.
The bronze Altar, on the other hand, stood high and visible in the outer courtyard. To approach, one must make their way up the ramp to give their offering. Standing at 10 cubits high, the entire nation would be able to see what was going on. It was here on this Altar that the people of Israel were atoned for. It was here that teshuvah, repentance, took place. When we make teshuvah and repent from our sins and our wrongdoings it needs to be seen by others. Our hearts have to change not just internally, but outwardly as well. If there is no one to see the change, can we be certain the change even took place?
Let’s examine Sforno’s citation of Exodus 29:43 in context:
“There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God.”Exodus 29:43-46 ESV
It’s at this outer Altar, known as the Mizbe’ach, where we offer up our sacrifices to the King. It is often described as our interaction with others, our visible efforts, and our first step to drawing near to Elohim. If we are not willing to lay our sins on the Altar, so to speak, how are we able to take the next step in our relationship with Him? Its not until we’ve accepted the opportunity for atonement, repented and drawn near to Elohim through Yeshua’s sacrifice that His glory can sanctify us.
But what about today? In the diaspora, teshuvah turns us back to Elohim and our prayers have taken the place of the incense that would have been offered up continually before Him. Our prayers, similar to the Inner Altar, are not a place that everyone has the privilege to witness. This quiet time is where we can serve Him with our hearts and our less visible attributes. It’s here where the oil of Torah fills our cups and where we trim out wicks. It is here where we marvel at His depth and love before we return, once again, to the outer court and interact with others. It is here that we reap the reward and the blessing of the construction of the entire Mishkan. Our teshuvah allows for our prayers to reach His ears, thus bringing more light to Sfornos statement that “the Incense Altar was necessitated by the successful completion of the entire complex, it is mentioned at the very end.” The heart of our sacrifice precedes and guides a heart of the prayer.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”Matthew 6:1-4 ESV
Cherish the private moments with Him and treasure the quiet blessings that come with it. These are for you. Whether you choose to pull back the curtain or not, is up to you.