Parshat Tetzaveh: The Internal Dimensions of the Katoret
Rabbanit Tova and Rabbi Evan Levine are Straus-Amiel shlichim serving as Directors of Community Education in Hale, Manchester
“You shall make a mizbe’ach on which to bring incense up in smoke, of shittim wood shall you make it.” (Shemot 30:1)
Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, the Kli Yakar, a renowned 17th century Torah commentator, understood from this verse that:
“Both altars were to atone for the wayward soul. The copper altar was to atone for the body, damaged by the stone of sin, upon which animals were offered in place of man as they resemble the physicality of man… [the] altar for incense, upon which you will cause smoke to ascend as a pleasant fragrance before Hashem, atone[s] for the spirit of man which soars heavenwards like the smoke of the incense…” (Kli Yakar, Shemot 30:1)
In essence, the twofold service of the mizbe’chot, the mizbe’ach Ha’Chitzoni (copper alter) and the mizbe’ach ha’ketoret (incense altar), were to act as conduits helping man, both individually and communally, realign body and soul with the passionate pursuit of knowledge and service of Hashem. That is, Hashem provided us with a process to transform our shortcomings into the stepping stones of actualizing our covenantal relationship with him.
Nearly 2,000 years since the destruction of the Second Temple, we have been forced as a people to learn how to navigate this process, to develop this relationship, without the benefit of the physical mizbe’chot, but how?
On Shemini Atzeret 5560 (1799), Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe (known as the Ba’al Ha’Tanya), gave a passionate discourse addressing this very question, “We no longer have a Beit Hamikdash, nor a mizbe’ach!” the Ba’al Ha’Tanya exclaimed, “It is, therefore, incumbent upon every person to identify the expression of his soul’s desire… to understand how… Divine service is manifest in the heart of each person. In every generation, one must find within his soul the fire [passion] that will burn and consume the offerings.” (Lekutei Torah, V’shavtem Mayim B’sason, 1799)
Rabbi Schneur Zalman offers a profound insight. How do we continue to foster a relationship with Hashem? By taking charge of our spiritual destiny and finding our truest inner voice, by choosing to find the unique aspects of ourselves that excite and inspire our avodat hashem, and by refusing to be complacent and passive in our religious experience.
The Ba’al Ha’Tanya continues by describing the heart as spiritually analogous to the two mizbe’chot, “the heart is akin to the mizbe’ach, just as there were two mizbe’chot, the internal and external, so too there are two dimensions in the heart – the external dimension of the heart and the internal.” (Based on the notes of the Tzamach Tzedek on this piece.)
The external dimension of the heart is the emotional and intellectual expressions of the heart which we choose to communicate, whereas the internal dimension is values or voices which we find in our heart of hearts – the values and ideals which shape and form who we are and what we truly believe.
Utilizing the analogy of the Ba’al Ha’Tanya, I would like to suggest an exercise to help us develop and actualize consistency and passion for authentic avodat Hashem.
The Ba’al Ha’Tanya’s suggestion that the inner recesses of our hearts are akin the mizbe’ach ha’Ketoret, the altar for incense, offers us an incredible glimpse into five areas of religious service, which we need to identify and develop in order to help us sustain and progress a meaningful Jewish existence.
They are found in two fascinating excerpts from the Midrash Tanchuma, “What do the letters in the word ketoret (“incense”) stand for? The kuf stands for kedushah (“sanctification”), tet for taharah (“purity”), resh for rachamim (“mercy”), and tav for tikvah (“hope”)…” (Midrash Tanchuma Tetzaveh 14) and “[the] incense is brought, not because of sin or transgression or guilt, but only out of sheer joy. Hence, “Ointment and incense rejoice the heart” (Midrash Tanchuma Tetzaveh 15).
The five areas of religious service mentioned in the Midrash are the five areas of our personal religious expression that we can develop and foster in the inner recesses of our hearts – on our own internal mizbe’ach. We need to ask ourselves: what does it mean to be and live a life of kedushah – to dedicate myself to Hashem and his Torah? What does it mean for me to live a life of taharah – to be pure, genuine, and authentic? What does it mean for me to live a life of rachamim – to be merciful and to act with compassion? What does it mean to live a life of tikvah, hope – what do I look forward to and what excites me to progress into the future? And finally, how does all of this culminate in a genuine Jewish life full of joy?
By taking the time to ask ourselves these questions and by becoming more acquainted with the real “us” we will be able to share an authentic, passionate Judaism, which is the essence of shlichut and building meaning relationships as shlichim, as well as foster a more authentic, meaningful personal experience as seekers of Hashem.
Rabbi Evan and Rabbanit Tova are the Directors of Education for the Hale Hebrew Adult Education Trust, an organization which promotes and offers Jewish educational opportunities is Hale, South Manchester. Hale is a warm, dynamic and energetic Orthodox community of approximately 350 member families, which focuses on fostering meaningful Jewish experiences and strengthening Jewish identity.