The Golden Altar (II)
Last week, we began to consider the Mishkan narratives and their detailed description of the Tabernacle and its vessels. We noted that the Torah was very deliberate, precise and methodical in its directives concerning the building and its contents, taking care to employ a structured ranking in its presentation of the data. Thus, the construction of the Ark, the Mishkan's most precious object, was spelled out first, followed by the Table of the Showbread and the Menora, both of which were to flank the Ark from their respective positions just beyond the dividing curtain. The text then proceeded with a description of the Tabernacle curtains and boards, including the dividing curtain, since these were to constitute the building envelope to effectively protect and shield the precious contents outlined above, as well as serving to divide the internal spaces according to a careful hierarchy. The scheme of the Bronze Altar followed, itself succeeded by a blueprint for the organization of the exterior courtyard in which that altar was to be located.
As we noted last week, what was prominently lacking from the account entirely was any meaningful reference to the Golden Altar of incense, a crucial cultic object that was to occupy a central position in both physical space as well as ceremony. The Golden Altar was to be located within the Holy, just beyond the dividing curtain and exactly opposite the Ark of the Testimony. In effect, the Table and Menora mentioned above effectively were to flank it, thus highlighting its special significance in the scheme of things. Ritually, the Golden Altar was to receive the twice-daily offering of pure incense, the smoke of which was to suggestively ascend from its auric surface as the first rays of light appeared in the east and again much later as the fiery orb began its descent in the west. Additionally, the Golden Altar was to figure most prominently in the solemn service of Yom Kippur, when the High Priest would effect atonement for the people by placing the sacrificial blood upon its horns.
THE TEXTUAL DESCRIPTION OF THE GOLDEN ALTAR
How curious, then, that the passage describing the Golden Altar, while employing syntax and vocabulary that clearly link it to the other vessels, is not introduced until the very end of Parashat Tetzave, even after the description of the special dedicatory ceremony to be celebrated at the completion of the Mishkan:
You shall fashion an altar for the offering of incense, and you shall make it out of acacia wood. It shall be one cubit in length and one in width, perfectly square, and two in height, and shall have horns upon it. You shall gild it with pure gold, its top and its sides around, as well as its horns, and you shall fashion for it an ornamental crown around its top. You shall prepare two golden rings beneath its crown on its two sides, to house the staves that shall be used to carry it. You shall make the staves out of acacia wood and you shall cover them with gold. You shall place it before the dividing curtain that is before the Ark of the Testimony, before the Ark cover that is upon the Testimony, the place where I shall meet with you. Aharon shall offer spiced incense upon it early in the morning, when he prepares the lights of the Menora he shall offer it. When Aharon kindles the lights at evening he shall offer incense again, it is perpetual incense to be offered before God for all generations…(30:1-10).
Recall that last time, we introduced the commentary of the Seforno (15th century, Italy) as a means of advancing our investigation. The Seforno had daringly suggested that the Table and Menora were the analogs to the household furnishings associated with nobility. The aristocrats typically had a table and lamp stand, a bed and a chair in their chambers, and so too the House of God. Seforno drew a precedent from the Shunamite women and her husband, who had prepared a chamber for the prophet Elisha and furnished it with those very things: "we shall place within it a couch/bed, table, chair and lamp" (Melachim/Kings 2:4:10).
THE MISHKAN FURNITURE AND GOD'S INVOLVEMENT
But God, of course, had no use for furniture. The coarse and concrete pagan deities may have physically dwelt in their temples and been imagined by their adherents to actually consume and be sustained by the food offerings placed before them, but not so the invisible, incorporeal and absolute God of Israel. Therefore, Seforno surmised, the Table was an object upon which were perpetually displayed the twelve loaves of bread (see VaYikra 24:5-9) to suggest God's constant provision of physical sustenance and nourishment to the people of Israel (the "Twelve Tribes"), much as an earthly monarch attends to the welfare of his people and defends their interests from harm. The Menora, the delicate golden branches constantly illuminated by the light of its ethereal fire, alluded to the various areas of human knowledge and endeavor while ascribing God as their source, for His wisdom alone could provide enlightenment.
These two objects, then, the Table and the Menora, framed the Ark of the Testimony that alone occupied the Holy of Holies just beyond the dividing curtain. As Seforno explained, the Ark was the embodiment of God's throne, its cherubic figures hovering protectively over its precious contents: the two tablets of the Decalogue that spelled out in remarkable economy the terms and conditions of the Divine-human relationship. God's presence among the people of Israel, the angelic seat upon which He was symbolically enthroned, was a direct function of their fidelity to the Torah and of their willingness and desire to actively seek out His presence. Taken together, these three precious objects provided a concise summary of God's special bond with the people of Israel: His Torah guided them, His providence sustained them and His wisdom and spirit enlightened them.
THE ANALOG TO THE ARK
Although the Seforno did not explicitly draw a link between the other furnishings of Elisha's chamber and the vessels of the Mishkan, such is the implication. Perhaps we go too far in associating the Ark with the "bed", but the traditional sources do in fact draw just such a connection. The Ark, of course, occupied the most private space of all, the Holy of Holies. Upon its lid were to be found two golden figures, the Keruvim, which hovered protectively above it. In a most provocative statement, some of the Talmudic rabbis claimed that these Keruvim, described in our text as "facing each other" (25:20), but elsewhere as "facing the house" (Divrei HaYamim/Chronicles 2:3:13), would actually adjust their gaze in accordance with the state of the God-Israel relationship. In other words, when "Israel fulfilled the will of God" the Keruvim would face each other, while when they strayed, the Keruvim would turn away (Talmud Bavli Bava Batra 99a). But it is Rashi (11th century, France) who completes the bold metaphor in his commentary on the passage:
When Israel did the will of God, the Keruvim would turn their faces towards each other after the manner of A MAN AND A WOMAN WHO WERE IN LOVE, symbolic of the love that God had for the people of Israel. Thus were the Keruvim initially fashioned, face to face, in order that God's presence should manifest itself among the people of Israel and in order that they should fulfill His will. And when they did not fulfill His will, then the Keruvim would miraculously avert their gaze and face the wall.
While clearly recognizing the inherent limitations of anthropomorphic readings, we may yet profit from the exercise of considering this most intrepid of allegories. The Ark is symbolic not only of God's throne and sovereign presence in the material world, but of His desire to bestow His goodness, His Torah, on the people of Israel. When Israel "fulfills His will" and keeps His commands, then intense communion with God, a relationship of intimates, and a genuine love, are possible. When they stray from Him, then they experience the pain of separation and the travail of distance. He "turns away" in reaction to their own infidelity. Connecting the strands, Seforno must therefore be intimating that the analog to the couch or bed of the noble's private chamber is the Ark of the Testimony in the Mishkan, for both bespeak the possibility and potential for expressing the most privileged, private and heartfelt of human longings – the intense love for another as the truest metaphor for the burning love of God.
THE ANALOG TO THE GOLDEN ALTAR
But what of the Golden Altar that still remains inexplicably absent from the account of the most precious vessels? Does it too have a parallel to an object in the chamber of Elisha, a correspondence that Seforno similarly left unstated? We may begin to consider the matter by analyzing the significance of this altar in the daily Temple ritual. In contrast to the large Altar of Bronze that was found in the outer courtyard and upon which the sacrifices, primarily animal, were burnt, the small and precious Golden Altar only received the incense. This fragrant combination of spices, described at the beginning of next week's Parasha, was daily offered upon a layer of burning hot coals that had been especially prepared for the purpose (for an exhaustive and fascinating description of the Daily Service in the Temple, including the ceremony of the incense offering, see the Mishna Tractate Tamid). The Holy would then fill with the ascending smoke, and the supplicant priest would bow and exit.
Although the Torah makes no attempt to explain the significance of the ritual, already early on, a plausible interpretation was advanced. In a fleeting reference from the Book of Tehillim/Psalms, David poetically exclaims:
God, I call out to you, hurry to save me! Listen to my voice when I cry out to you! MAY MY PRAYER FIND FAVOR BEFORE YOU AS INCENSE, THE LIFTING UP OF MY HANDS AS THE EVENING OFFERING… (Tehillim/Psalms 141:1-2).
It seems that the service of the incense was therefore meant to symbolize the offering of prayers to God by the people of Israel. Unlike the involved service of the tangible animal sacrifice, that had at its core the idea of substitution and submission, the incense offering consisted solely of fragrant smoke ascending from the fire, ephemeral and elusive. What more fitting symbolism could there be for the poignant prayer of the human heart, uttered silently but sincerely, daily borne aloft to God on measured breaths, as ethereal as a rising wisp of smoke?
On the other hand, the centrality of the Golden Altar in the ritual of atonement, itself accompanied by a special incense offering (see VaYikra/Leviticus 16:12-13), may also be animated by a similar notion. The true repentance associated with Yom Kippur, the transforming teshuva that alone restores us to God's presence, is of course a service of the heart. If we remain insincere or insensitive to God's entreaties, then the ritual is of little worth. But if our teshuva is genuine, if our PRAYERS are real, then God is attentive to our cries and close to our spirits. The incense, the ascending fragrant smoke of Yom Kippur, may therefore be symbolic not only of God's inscrutability – the impenetrable cloud that obscures His essence – but of our own intense desire to reach Him through prayer.
THE LOCATION OF THE GOLDEN ALTAR
The position of importance accorded to the Golden Altar within the space of the Holy is now clear. As the symbol of prayer ascending, it is placed exactly OPPOSITE the Ark of the Testimony that is separated from it by only the thin partition of the dividing curtain. On its either side, the Table and the Menora guard the Golden Altar, for though these objects speak worlds about God's involvement in our lives, it is the Golden Altar that speaks for US. We stand before God and pour out our prayers before Him, cognizant of His providence and enlightenment while transfixed by the awesome experience of His presence – the throne/couch that suggestively beckons beyond the curtain, an invitation to the spiritual intimacy for which we long.
But why then is the Golden Menora omitted from the account, appended to its conclusion like some sort of afterthought? In fact, the deliberate lacuna is a function of the Golden Altar's most unique status. The other vessels in the Holy space, the Table and the Menora, describe God's ongoing intervention in our lives. HE provides for our daily needs and defends us from physical harm, HE inspires us with wisdom and ignites the flame of spirituality that gives meaning to our lives, and HE of course guides us with His commands. The Mishkan is, in effect, HIS house because, after the manner of Seforno's interpretation, its various vessels and ceremonies highlight HIS eternal presence in Israel.
But, the Torah suggests, the engine that drives and animates those hallowed spaces, the rituals that enliven that holy place and charge it with meaning, are particularly those that are brought to it by the broken and supplicant human heart. If we cannot cry out to God, then no ceremony, no matter how august and noble, can save us from despair and oblivion. The Golden Altar, the service of the incense that embodies our most profound and intense unutterable words, is thus left until the end, to emphasize in a most extraordinary way that the Mishkan remains painfully incomplete and unfinished until its solemn space is restored by the prayer that truly constitutes its intended purpose.
As for Elisha's chair (and here we can but speculate), could it itself be the analog to the Golden Altar? The Ark could be plausibly associated with the bed/couch, and the Table and Menora with their respective furnishings, leaving only the Golden Altar to be associated with the chair of the noble's chamber. But if our analysis is correct, that the Golden Altar is less about God's involvement and more about our own initiative, then perhaps the chair analogy is not absurd. Imagine, for a moment, Elisha in his chamber as he graciously receives the Shunamite woman and her husband, or others for that matter, in audience. Would the prophet himself not be seated upon his couch while they might conceivably alight upon the chair, to pour out their hearts before him and to seek his inspired guidance? Could the chair, then, be a furnishing that serves not only the noble himself but also those that appear before him, asking his advice? Might these two furnishings, then, the bed and the chair, placed exactly opposite each other to facilitate dialogue, perhaps be parallel to the Ark/Golden Altar matrix of the Mishkan?
THE PRIESTLY BLESSING
We conclude with a final thought. Having established the respective purposes of the most important of the Tabernacle vessels, we turn again to the text to discover a remarkable and profound connection. This time, let us consider for a moment the dedication ceremony of the completed Mishkan, described in Parashat Shemini (VaYikra Chapter 9). Having concluded the requisite sacrifices without mishap, the Torah states that: "Aharon lifted up his hands to the people and blessed them. He then descended from having offered the sin-offering, the burnt-offering and the peace-offering. Moshe and Aharon came to the Tent of Meeting, they emerged and blessed the people, and God's glory appeared to the entire people…" (VaYikra 9:22-23).
According to an early tradition (Sifra, Miluim Shemini 30), the blessing that Aharon pronounced upon the people at that most auspicious event of completing the Tabernacle was the so-called Priestly Blessing, later spelled out in the Book of BeMidbar 6:22-27. Of course, this special benediction was not limited to that extraordinary event, but henceforth actually entered the daily prayer service of the Temple and the synagogue, and it is still recited to this day. It is striking, though, that it is first introduced in connection with the Mishkan, and perhaps we can ascertain why by considering its formula:
God spoke to Moshe saying: speak to Aharon and to his sons and tell them 'thus shall you bless the people of Israel, say to them: may God bless you and protect you; may He cause His face to shine upon you and give you grace; may He lift up His face towards you and grant you peace'. Let them pronounce My name upon the people of Israel and I will bless them…(BeMidbar/Numbers 6:22-27).
These blessings are comprehensive in their scope and generous in expression, addressing the basic elements of human existence and invoking God's blessing upon them. But they are hardly generic. In fact, a careful reading of these verses reveals a most striking connection with our Parasha that this author believes to be definite:
"May God BLESS you and PROTECT you" clearly addresses the PHYSICAL SUSTENANCE and protection that Seforno related to the Table. "May He cause His face to SHINE upon you and give you grace" is an unmistakable reference to God's central role in providing us with spiritual succor and ENLIGHTENMENT, as embodied by the Menora. The third, most comprehensive, and decisive blessing, "may He LIFT UP His face towards you and grant you peace", cannot but refer to the Golden Altar, for from upon its polished crest the fragrant smoke of the incense ASCENDS with our prayers. Undoubtedly, the three vessels of the Holy space, though separated in the account of their construction in Parashat Teruma, are here finally brought together in precisely the correct progression, for the Priestly Benediction is the verbalization of their true meaning and the concrete expression of their symbolic purpose. The prayer of which we spoke, that ascends heavenwards with the daily incense offering, fastens together earth and heaven, God and Israel, in perfect communion, the granting of peace and completeness for which we strive. No wonder the Midrash Sifra that we quoted above, when citing the concluding verse of the Dedication Ceremony – "Moshe and Aharon came to the Tent of Meeting, they emerged and blessed the people, and God's glory appeared to the entire people…" (VaYikra 9:22-23) – confidently asserts, in the absence of any textual proof, that
Why did Moshe and Aharon enter the Mishkan together at that time? So that Moshe could instruct Aharon in the SERVICE OF THE INCENSE!