Sunday, January 27, 2008

Parashas Yisro

Mizbach adamah ta’asu li … v’im mizbach avanim ta’aseh li, lo sivneh eshen gazis … velo sa’aleh v’ma’alos al mizbechi … You shall make an altar of earth for me … and if you make an altar of stone, do not build it out of cut stone … and you shall not ascend my altar using steps … (Shemos 21-23)

Many years ago, I was walking home from shul on Friday night with my then six or seven year old oldest son. He looked up at me and asked the following question: Why does the Torah prohibit ascending the ramp to the altar by using steps whereas we find no similar prohibition in regard to the menorah which was lit by a kohen who ascended three steps. If there is a prohibition of ascending steps during the Divine service because the action causes the robes of the kohen to open and reveal his private parts, should this prohibition not extend to other parts of the service as well?

I had no answer for him and the next morning, when we went to the yeshiva to daven, I proposed that we ask the rosh yeshiva for his opinion. After tefillah we did so and the rosh yeshiva had no ready reply. My son was absolutely amazed that he had managed to stump the rosh yeshiva and that feeling of accomplishment stood him well for quite a few years afterwards. Through the years he has received a couple of answers, none of them completely satisfying. With your indulgence, I’d like to take another stab at it.

Before doing so, however, I would like to pose another series of questions; hopefully, the answers to the latter will help shine light on the former. In this last part of Yisro, the Torah refers to a number of seemingly unrelated restrictions: 1] the requirement to construct the mizbeach from earth rather than stone, 2] when using stone [a requirement in the Tabernacle and Battei Mikdash (see Devarim 27:6)] the requirement to insure that it was not quarried in the usual manner by cutting it with a metal saw. The Torah specifies that this was forbidden since metal is associated with weaponry and is thus unsuitable for use in the area. If so, why is there no similar prohibition regarding the shulchan which was made of wood and theoretically also required cutting? 3] The Torah then specifies that the kohen was not to ascend the altar using steps, for in doing so his robes would open and he would be deficient in his modesty. This would seem to have nothing to do with the previous command? 4] What do these restrictions share other than applying to the mizbeach?

Obviously, the entire Divine service is deeply symbolic. I would suggest that the mizbeach hachitzon [the altar in the Temple/Tabernacle court used for the sacrifices as opposed to the mizbach ha-zahav – the altar inside the kodesh usd for the incense] has a far different symbolic meaning than do the other utensils. The shulchan, mizbeach hazahav and menorah symbolize G-d’s relationship to mankind. The menorah symbolizes Torah and the Divine knowledge and wisdom that has been imparted to mankind. The shulchan represents the bounty of Divine sustenance given to man whereas the mizbeach hazahav – the altar of gold used for the offering of the incense – represents Divine forgiveness for the incense was source for kapparah. All three keilim are symbolic of G-d’s relationship to man - a relationship that changes and is based on each man's standing and understanding. As such, the relationship is far less subject to misinterpretation or perversion.

The exterior mizbeach, on the other hand, represents or symbolizes man’s relationship to G-d, his efforts to bond himself to Hashem through his actions [korbanot]. This bond to Hashem is contingent on a number of factors: it must be precisely as outlined by G-d, for otherwise we have created a god whose parameters, commands and will have been determined by man rather than by G-d. Furthermore, the normal relationship between G-d and man [if one can make reference to a normal relationship] allows for a set of logical circumstances wherein the rules are set aside by other contingencies. For example, halachah allows for the concept of pikuach nefesh wherein the requirements for mitzvah observance are set aside because of an emergency situation. The Talmud seems to imply that the basis for this is logical [chalel alav Shabbos achas k'dei sheyishmor Shabbasos harbeh - violate one Shabbos on his behalf so that he might observe many other Shabbasos]. The exception to this are the three cardinal sins: idolatry, murder and forbidden relations. These are not included because it would seem that it is self-understood that our relationship with G-d is predicated on society being free of these anti-Divine aspects.

The three mitvot outlined at the end of this parashah correspond to these three sins: mizbeach avanim corresponding to idolatry, refraining from using a cutting implement corresponding to killing and no steps corresponding to modesty and forbidden relationships. They only applied to the mizbeach, for it was the altar upon which the korbanot were offered that symbolized man’s desire to draw close to his creator. It is specifically as regards the altar that G-d allows no alterations, for the altar, more than all of the other utensils in the Tabernacle symbolizes the way we view G-d.

May it be His will that we always serve Him in the way that He chose.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


perhaps: the mizbeach is outdoors and publicly visible, thus immodesty is more of a concern.