Friday, February 5, 2021

Mizbeah - Altar


Among many ways to categorize Mitzvois – Biblical commandments, that of differentiating them between those regarding a person’s relationship to Creator and those regarding person to person relationships is probably one of the most known.

Ben Adam le Mukoim and Ben Adam le haveiro are clearly visible in Atzeres Hadibres – the Ten Commandments.

 אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים׃

“I the LORD am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage”

The first Mitzva of the ten  instructs us to act as a free people and free individuals. This along with the following four commandments including Kuvoid le Aim ve Av are categorized by Chazal as those setting our relationship with G-d.

The following five commandments clearly regulate our relationships with our fellow humans.

The parsha Mishputim following the Ten Commandments continues in setting detailed regulations of human behavior toward others. Only at the end of the sequence are Yomim Toivim listed, but the argument can be brought that even those commandments are more human-centered than focused on our Creator. The rest of the commandments of the Parsha are clearly Ben Adam le haveiro.

But there are few lines right between Ten Commandments and following parsha which, after the excitement of reading the text written on the Luchois HaBris – Tablets of Covenant, we might be paying less attention to. This is commandment of building Earth Altar – Mizbeah.

That insert clearly interrupts the flow of continuity between second part of the Ten commandments and the detailed laws of human interactions. It sticks there like a giant “BUT” – You should do all those commandments BUT under these conditions, or being restricted by these conditions or setting these as principals when you are doing the rest of the commandments, those listed on the Tablets as well as those following in Parshas Mishputim.

Rav Hirsh notice that three commandments following the Ten from the Luchois are in fact rephrased commandments from the Luchois itself. For these three commandments we must rather give up our earthly existence than break them in any form.

לֹ֥א תַעֲשׂ֖וּן אִתִּ֑י אֱלֹ֤הֵי כֶ֙סֶף֙ וֵאלֹהֵ֣י זָהָ֔ב לֹ֥א תַעֲשׂ֖וּ לָכֶֽם׃

“With Me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold”

This is clearly a rephrase of the commandment prohibiting any form of idolatry.

But then a really strange thing happens. Hashem gives the commandment of building the Altar or rather certain details of how the altar has to be constructed and operated. Specifically, there are two details.

מִזְבַּ֣ח אֲדָמָה֮ תַּעֲשֶׂה־לִּי֒ וְזָבַחְתָּ֣ עָלָ֗יו אֶת־עֹלֹתֶ֙יךָ֙ וְאֶת־שְׁלָמֶ֔יךָ אֶת־צֹֽאנְךָ֖ וְאֶת־בְּקָרֶ֑ךָ בְּכָל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אַזְכִּ֣יר אֶת־שְׁמִ֔י אָב֥וֹא אֵלֶ֖יךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּֽיךָ׃

“Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.

וְאִם־מִזְבַּ֤ח אֲבָנִים֙ תַּֽעֲשֶׂה־לִּ֔י לֹֽא־תִבְנֶ֥ה אֶתְהֶ֖ן גָּזִ֑ית כִּ֧י חַרְבְּךָ֛ הֵנַ֥פְתָּ עָלֶ֖יהָ וַתְּחַֽלְלֶֽהָ׃

And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your sword upon them you have profaned them.

וְלֹֽא־תַעֲלֶ֥ה בְמַעֲלֹ֖ת עַֽל־מִזְבְּחִ֑י אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹֽא־תִגָּלֶ֥ה עֶרְוָתְךָ֖ עָלָֽיו׃ (פ)

Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.”

As the Mizbeah is being build and operated, not even the symbol of violence which is the sword should be used in the process and not even a slight exposure of the body should happen.

Those are clearly referencing Shivas Dumim and Giluy Arayos -- two of the Ten Commandments as Rav Hirsh will explain below.

But before we go to the detailed commentaries let’s look at the Rashi.

מזבח אדמה AN ALTAR OF EARTH [SHALT THOU MAKE] — i. e. an altar attached to the earth, meaning, that they should not build an altar upon columns or upon a base, but it must rest upon the actual ground.”

After a general explanation of the commandment of Mizbeah, Rashi explains the further meaning of not using a tool of violence or giving indecent exposure of the body.

“THEN YOU HAST PROFANED IT — Thus you may learn that if thou liftest up thy iron tool above it thou profanest it. The reason of this it, because the altar is created (its purpose is) to lengthen man’s days and iron has been created (one of its purposes is) to shorten man’s days, it is not right that an object which shortens man’s life should be lifted up above that which lengthens it. And a further reason it: because the altar makes peace between Israel and their Father in Heaven, and therefore there should not come upon it anything that cuts and destroys. Now, the following statement follows logically, à fortiori: How is it in the case of stones which cannot see nor hear nor speak? Because that they promote peace Scripture ordains, “Thou shalt not lift up against them any iron tool!” Then in the case of one who makes peace between a man and his wife, between family and family, between a man and his fellow, how much more certain is it that punishment will not come upon him.”

“THAT YOUR NAKEDNESS BE NOT UNCOVERED — because on account of these steps you will have to take large paces and so spread the legs. Now, although this would not be an actual uncovering of one’s nakedness (of the parts usually kept covered), since it is written, (Exodus 28:42) “And thou shalt make for them (the priests) linen breeches [to cover the flesh of their nakedness]”, still the taking of large paces is near enough to uncovering one’s nakedness that it may be described as such, and you would then be treating them (the stones of the altar) in a manner that implies disrespect. Now the following statement follows logically à fortiori: How is it in the case of stones which have no sense (feeling) to be particular about any disrespect shown to them? Scripture ordains that since they serve some useful purpose you should not treat them in a manner that implies disrespect! Then in the case of your fellow-man who is made in the image of your Creator and who is particular about any disrespect shown to him, how much more certain is it that you should not treat him disrespectfully!”

Now after reading Rashi’s commentary we can go further with Rabbi Hirsch’s commentary. As we will see, his understanding is very much parallel with Rashi however Rav Hirsch brings some other details of Mesoira which hopefully will help us understand this out of place insert of the commandments apparently not fitting to the sequence of the Mitzvois Ben Adam le haveiro.

“You shall not make images, shall not form the likeness of the sun or moon or anything that is with Me: but I do allow you to form for yourselves things that are with you; what you are to do, is not to bring heavenly things down to you on earth, but to elevate all earthly things up to Me. When you wish to come to Me, you have not to represent to yourselves things that you imagine are with Me in heaven, but rather to ponder on how I wish things to be carried on by you on earth. It is the earth not heaven that concerns you if and when you wish to come near to Me.

The altar that you build up to Me should represent the earth raised up to God by Men's deeds, Men's action. "An altar of earth "מִזְבַּ֣ח אֲדָמָה֮ direct and immediately from the earth is to arise, even an intervening space of a handbreadth would make the altar invalid. The temporary altar of the Mishkan was itself a freshly erected heap of earth, which was then enclosed in hollow box.

And when you will have finished your wanderings and entered into your permanent State, and then will have also to change your "wandering" altar into a permanent one of stone, then every stone of your altar is to preach to you the holiness and dedication to God of the whole of your national life. No steel may have touched a stone out of which you wish to build your altar, no steel may touch any stone out of which you have built your altar. The stone over which you have swung your steel becomes desecrated thereby for the altar of God.”

Not destruction, not sacrifice, nor giving up life, is the meaning and purpose of the altar, and the sword, the instrument of force and violence cannot get any consecration at the Jewish altar, right and humanity must build the altar, and the realm of rights and humaneness, not the mastery of the sword, is to spread from it. In the "Hall of Stone" adjoining the altar of stone, Jewish Right had its permanent citadel (the Sanhedrin was housed there.I.L.) and not the sword, the altar is the symbol of Jewish Justice. V. 23.

And just as the altar is to be a preacher of right and humaneness, those twin spirits of society striving upwards to God, be a preacher of modest decency, that fundamental trait of godliness in humanity without which justice and humaneness will be sought for in vain in human society. With Giluy Arayos – Forbidden relationships –  the heights of the altar will never be mounted! וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃ The earth became corrupt before G-d; the earth was filled with lawlessness. (Gen. VI,12) is the oldest and the most serious experience of the history of Man. ("The world became morally corrupt before G-d, then the whole world became full of injustice and inhumanity." I.L.).

To summarize this epilogue to the "Ten Commandments" : the three main sins which undermine our relation to G-d are countered, and to banish them, to expel the very last trace of them from our midst is the object of the Divine Lawgiving. These are Avoida Zura, Shvichas Dumim and Giluy Arayos, the culmination of sin against God, of sin against one's fellow-man, and of sin against oneself. V.20 and V 21 A’Z, V.22 S’D and V.23 G’A. God, society and the human being are the subjects of the Divine Torah, and this epilogue announces that just as our relation to these form the contents of the Lawgiving, so it, and it alone, is to form the subject of the symbolism of the Sanctuary, as a whole, and of all its parts. The altar and the Torah itself have solely human beings as their subject matter and meaning as well as the godly building up and extending of all that true humanity should be .” Rav Hirsch, Parshas Yisro.

Back in Parshas Noach Rav Hirsch comments on the same topic of Mizbeah in following words:

“To take a single slab of stone and sacrifice thereon would mean recognizing God from the standpoint of Nature; whereas the built מִזְבַּ֣ח expresses the conception of first working oneself up above the bound character of Nature to the godlike free-willed standpoint of Man, and, from that point of view, strive upward to God. So that inasmuch as Noah built an altar to God on the fresh gift of the earth, he, as the Ancestor, dedicated this newly-gifted earth to be a place on which the future activity of mankind is to add stone to stone until ultimately the whole becomes a holy mount of God. When other nations tried, and try, to get near their God, they get away from human surroundings and believe they can find God nearer to them out in nature. Certainly, one can find God there too, but He is much nearer in all His Glory in the sphere of a human life. There, in Nature, His Omnipotence, His infinite Power is revealed, here His infinite Love .”

One of the first Talmudic Mesechtois learned by very young students in the Haider is ‘Mesechtas Succa’. One of the first subjects which they learn is ‘Lulav Goizel’ – stolen Lulav and the concept of ‘Mitzva abube aveira’ – Mitzva performed by means of Aveira – sin.

It should be clear to everyone after reading above commentaries of Rashi and Rav Hirsch on topic of the Mizbeah inserted in this strange place, out of flow of the Mitzvois concerning human interactions, why it is there.

We learn from the words of Rashi and Rav Hirsch that the construction of the Altar is raised from below up. It is constructed with our actions, where stones of that Altar are elevated by our submission to G-d‘s Law. We learn that the altar can not contain any elements of intermediary between us and our Creator. No form of violence is justified in building this Altar on the individual or national level (Except actions commanded by Prophets and Sanhedrin). No form of promiscuity should be used to achieve higher goals. 

The commandment of building an Altar with provided guidelines in this place and as explained by our commentators constitutes a general rule for all the other commandments listed in both Atzeres Hadibres and parshas Mishpatim.