The Holiest Act

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Miriam Pearl Klahr

The miluim at the end of Parshat Tetzaveh appear to be the culmination of our last two Torah portions. After describing the keilim, the mishkan itself, and the priestly garments, the Torah tells of a seven-day initiation process for the kohanim, after which G-d will dwell among the Jewish people. Thus it is surprising to find that following the miluim, Parshat Tetzaveh discusses the mizbeach haZahav. In fact, many commentators ask why the command to build this mizbeach is stated after all the commandments regarding the mishkan and the miluim, isolated from the listing of the keilim at the start of Parshat Terumah.

Reading about the mizbeach hazahav after so many psukim concerning the preparation for the mishkan and then G-d’s dwelling within it, may cause the reader to feel that this altar’s service is the pinnacle of the avodah performed within the mishkan. Sforno suggests a similar idea, explaining that the laws of the mizbeach haZahav are stated last because they did not serve a utilitarian purpose. The other vessels and karbanot were meant to bring down the glory of G-d and provide a resting place for his shechina. But the purpose of offering the ketoret on the mizbeach hazahav was solely to give honor to G-d, without any specific benefit to the Jewish people.

Furthermore, the service upon the mizbeach HaZahav seems more elevated not only because of its dramatic placement within the text, but also by nature of the physical service itself. In contrast to the slaughtered animals and physical blood offered upon the mizbeach haNechoshet, incense was brought upon the golden altar. According to Rav Hirsch, the offering of the ketoret represents the Jewish ideal of an “earthly existence, completely permeated with spirituality, without leaving any residue,” just like incense leaves no residue.  Furthermore the ketoret’s fragrance was impalpable. According to kabbalah the sense of smell is considered to be more removed from physicality than the other senses; olfaction is deemed the sense of the soul.

Yet, on this golden alter, this place of almost other worldly non-physical worship, a very different service was performed once a year. On Yom Kippur, on the altar of the most spiritual of services, blood was placed on the mizbeach as an atonement for the Jewish people. And of all services, the Torah calls this one “kodesh kadashim hu laHashem.”

It is valuable to create sacred places and moments where one can almost escape the physical nature of this world and serve G-d only through the soul. But what G-d calls most holy is the acknowledgment of human imperfection, serving him with blood, the physical substance man is made of. As people, we need instants of pure spirituality to remember what to strive for, that there is more to life than the material world we see. But the holiest act is to use the inspiration of such moments to acknowledge our shortcomings and serve G-d with our physical imperfect selves, working to atone for and better the world.

Miriam Pearl Klahr (SBM 14) is currently a sophomore at Stern College studying Mathematics and Judaic Studies. She spent her gap year at Midreshet Nishmat.

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