June 13, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
June 13, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Mysteriously Misplaced Menorah and Mizbe’ach

So much of Parshat Tetzaveh appears out of place. The bulk of Tetzaveh deals with the special clothing worn by the kohen gadol and the inauguration of the kohanim. Yet Tetzaveh begins with an instruction that Bnei Yisrael are to bring pure olive oil to fuel the Menorah. Tetzaveh ends with the instruction to construct the Mizbe’ach HaKetoret, the golden incense altar. Should these topics not have been in last week’s parsha in which the components of the Mishkan were described? If they are to be included in this week’s parsha, should they not be at the beginning, as a continuation from the last parsha? So why are these instructions included in Tetzaveh and why in this particular order?

As noted, the parsha begins with instructions to provide oil for the Menorah. It goes on to detail the special clothing the nation is to make for the exclusive use of the kohen gadol. The parsha then details how Aharon is to don the clothing, be anointed, and what special sacrifices Aharon and sons will offer to begin their service as kohanim. After this comes the instructions for the daily communal offering and finally instructions to construct an incense altar. What do these topics have to do with the clothing of the kohen gadol? The lighting of the Menorah, the communal offering and the incense offering—none of them were in the sole purview of the kohen gadol.

Today, clothing with reds, blues and purples are taken for granted. In biblical times, these colors were so expensive that they were only for royalty or the high aristocracy. The kohen gadol’s clothing was largely made up of these colors. Further, his clothing was permeated with gold. He also wore 14 precious stones, all carefully cut and engraved. Even royalty might be envious of such garments. Only kohanim have even a chance of wearing these robes, and only one actually wears them. What is more, the kohen gadol does not pay for these garments; the nation of Israel bears the cost. It is easy to imagine moments when the kohen gadol, or even a regular kohen, might look on these garments and think of how elevated he, or they, are from the rest of the nation.

To counter such thoughts, the Torah precedes the description of the garments with an instruction for the nation to provide pure oil. Beginning the parsha, ostensibly dealing with kohanim, with this instruction serves to remind the kohanim that the Nation of Israel precedes them. As the parsha states, the kohen gadol bears the names of the tribes on his shoulders; the people are his burden. Similarly, after describing how to inaugurate the kohanim, the Torah immediately speaks of the nation’s daily communal offerings. Thus, the details of the kohen hagadol’s garments are sandwiched between references and instructions to the nation as a whole. The Menorah is symbolic of Torah itself. Bnei Yisrael toil for the Torah, not for the kohanim. The kohanim in turn serve to bring Bnei Yisrael closer to Hashem and His Torah. The kohanim serve Bnei Yisrael, not the other way around.

The instruction that the oil be pure is a reminder to the kohanim that their service is to be pure. Of course, some kohanim could interpret the instruction to bring pure oil as a declaration that they are pure. Pure oil, however, is not used for any personal benefit of the kohanim. Indeed, the pure oil is not even used to anoint the kohen gadol. Pure oil is only used for the Menorah. In fact, even the offerings involving oil do not use pure oil of the quality used in the Menorah. This conveys still additional messages.

First, the less-than-perfect oil used to anoint the kohen gadol is a reminder that even he is less than pure, less than perfect. He should not become haughty and think himself purer than the rest of the nation, better than the rest of the nation. Only Hashem and His Torah are pure. Second, the less-than-perfect oil used for offerings acknowledges that no one is without failings, without imperfections, without sin. Yet, this is not a hindrance to coming close to Hashem but a recognition of the nature of humanity. The korbanot help man approach Hashem. The fact that less-than-pure oil is used in korbanot reminds us that our imperfections and wrongful acts do not bar us from coming closer to the Divine; after all, even the oil for the korbanot is less than pure.

Still, why does the parsha end with instructions concerning the incense altar and why make a reference there to the Menorah? If there is a connection between the Menorah and the incense altar, would it not make more sense to also place these verses together with the command about bringing pure oil?

In many instances the kohanim receive a portion of the korban being offered. Not so with incense. From the incense they take nothing. Also, although initially there may be smoke from the burning, eventually there is no physical manifestation of the incense offering, only the scent. From this the kohanim, and Israel as whole, may take a lesson. When offering the korbanot, or performing other mitzvot, we should not act with an expectation of benefit. When we are done we should have nothing tangible—simply the pleasant knowledge, like a pleasant scent, that we have performed Hashem’s will. It is appropriate to make this point at this juncture after receiving the first instructions concerning the priestly service.

Although we no longer can offer sacrifices, we can still study Torah. As with the incense offering, so also with Torah study. In studying Torah, represented by the Menorah, we should not do it with an expectation of benefit. We should do it simply with the intention to better understand Hashem and what He expects of us. See Pirkei Avot 6:1. Could there be still another message in linking the incense and the Menorah?

When in our lives do we use incense and light together? When do we bring these two things together? This is done during Havdalah when we exit Shabbos and commence the work week. The message to us here is to begin the week with an understanding that in each day, albeit days not filled with the sanctity of Shabbos, we can still serve Hashem and should do so with the same devotion as we would if we were kohanim in the Mishkan or Beit Hamikdash.


William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelor of Arts in religion and a law degree from NYU, and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles