Parashat Tetzaveh – Erev Shabbat 11 February 2022 (5782)
Week of 6 -12 February 2022
Torah portion: Exodus 27:20-30:10 Haftarah: Ezekiel 43:10-27
Theme: The Golden Altar
Nehama Leibowitz in her commentary Studies in Shemot points out that before today’s parashah the Torah writes exclusively on the commandments relating to the construction and layout of the Tabernacle as well as objects within it. However, today’s parashah, writes Leibowitz, is more concerned about the daily functioning of the Tabernacle as a place of worship.(Leibowitz: 508.) This worship involves a variety of senses: vision in the form of light of the lamp and the splendor of priestly vestments; sound in the form of the ringing of pomegranates and bells on priestly robes; taste in the form of showbread on the table inside the Tabernacle; and smell in the form of incense burning on the altar of incense or the golden altar.
The last one of these is almost easy to miss as it appears at the very end of our parashah,(30:1-10). However, it deserves our full attention, not least because of its role in the story of John the Baptist: it was during his service at the altar of incense when his father Zechariah was visited by an angel of the Lord (see Lk 1:11). Interestingly, the Talmud writes that the incense service at the Temple was considered to bring a blessing for wealth and therefore priests got assigned this duty only once in their lifetime (see Yoma 26a).
The encounter between Zechariah and an angel shows another important aspect of the golden altar: it was a place of the most intimate encounter with God where the priest served away from the public eye, one on one with the divine. Rambam notes that the altar of incense is not mentioned together with the table and the candelabrum, the other two objects in the same space within the Tabernacle. Rambam explains that it is because the incense service at the golden altar had a different meaning: it was closely connected with giving God glory (following from 29:43, see Rambam on Exodus 30:1).
This altar was also crucial in the atonement for sins (see 30:10). It is illustrated by a story in Num. 16 when Moses instructed Aaron to take incense from the altar and run among the rebellious Israelites who were hit by a plague. With this incense, Aaron stood “between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped.” (Num 16:48). Thus, the golden altar bears a very special meaning for our current world ravaged by sickness. It reminds us that even in such a formal setting as the Tabernacle God works in very practical ways to help his people. The Tabernacle was not built for show; it was a place for a mutual service between humans and God. At its center, was a small golden altar like a golden heart that emitted the most wonderful fragrance that there is, love between God and his people.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Imagine and describe what the golden altar looked like and how it functioned with the other objects in the Tabernacle! 2. Discuss ‘godly’ smells and fragrances in your life in the past or present. 3. Do you see any parallels between the story in Num. 16:41-50 and the current covid situation?
Bibliography: Leibowitz, N. Studies in Shemot (Exodus) (Jerusalem, 1995), Rambam on Exodus (www.sefaria.org), Drizin, R.-H. “The Golden Altar” (www.chabad.org/kabbalah)
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Rota Stone, New Zealand, Bat Kol Alumna: 2002, 2003