Chapter 27

[20] You: Beginning with the parashah in which he is born (Shemot), through the end of the book of Numbers,1 Moses’ name appears in every parashah—except for this one. One explanation of this is that this is how God fulfilled Moses’ request following the sin of the Golden Calf, when God threatened to destroy the Jews: “If You will forgive their sin, well and good. But if not, erase me from Your book that You wrote.”2 Although God did forgive the people, Moses’ proposition had to be fulfilled in some form. Hence, God “erased” Moses’ name from this parashah.3

This explanation, however, does not address why it is this parashah in which Moses’ name is absent. A deeper explanation, therefore, is that the absence of Moses’ name from this parashah indicates that the objectives expressed in this parashah can only be achieved by his essence, the aspect of him that cannot be described by a name.

True, from the Torah’s perspective, the name of a person or thing is not an arbitrary convention. An entity’s “name in Hebrew is a vessel for the [Divine] life force condensed into the letters of that name, which has descended from the ten [Divine] utterances [of creation recorded] in the Torah that [in turn] have the power and vitality to create [this entity] ex nihilo and give it life forever.”4 Thus, an entity’s true name expresses the Divine life force that defines and enlivens it, and therefore expresses all its properties and characteristics, as well.

Nonetheless, the true essence of a person or thing cannot be captured in its name, since a name is only a reflection of how this abstract essence is projected into the world. Just as a person alone on a desert island has no need for a name, so, too, a name expresses only the aspect of the whole that is perceptible and identifiable by others. In contrast, the pronouns “you” or “I,” just because they are nondescript, address the essence of the person.5 So, by addressing Moses as “you” immediately at the beginning of the parashah (and numerous times throughout it), the Torah indicates that the content of this parashah—the office of the priesthood—is uniquely dependent on his essence, as will be seen.

This explanation also explains the deeper meaning of Moses’ words “erase me from Your book.” By asking that his name be removed from the Torah, Moses wished to invoke the essential bond between himself and his people—and thereby the essential bond between God and His people—which transcended the Torah and the Jews’ fulfillment of it. Invoking this bond would allow for the atonement of the people’s sin and ultimately bring them back to the Torah.6

You will command the Israelites to bring you clear olive oil: The word for “command” (tetzaveh) can also mean “bond.” Hence, this verse can be read as an instruction to Moses to bond and unite all the Israelites. Based on what was said above, the fact that Moses is addressed as “you” instead of by name implies that he can only unite all Jews through his essence. Moses’ name, like all names, operates only in the perceptible world, and according what we see and perceive, there are all types of Jews, including those who have worshipped a calf. In order for Moses to ascend beyond the boundaries of perception to the level where all Jews are equal and can unite, God addressed him as “you.” You will bond the Israelites: your essence, which is a window to My essence, can find that place where all Jews are one entity.

The ability of Moses to bond the people into one virtual entity is particularly pertinent to kindling the lamps of the Candelabrum. Although Aaron was to light the Candelabrum, God told the Jews to bring the oil to Moses. For aside from lighting the physical Candelabrum, Aaron was also to “light” the human Candelabrum, the souls of his people. But a lamplighter can only light a lamp; he cannot bring light to a place that lacks a vessel. On his own, Aaron could only ignite those who were suitable for Divine light. So, addressing Moses as “you,” God said that the Jews should bring the oil to Moses—to Moses in his state of “you.” For with the power of Moses’ essence, Aaron would be able to bring light even to those who seem to have no lamp.7

Chapter 28

[1] You shall draw your brother Aaron to you from among the Israelites, together with his sons, to minister to Me: In order to install Aaron and his sons as priests, God instructed Moses to draw them to himself, because Moses was himself already effectively a priest and therefore able to endow them with that strength.

So, too, in every generation, God commissions the “Moses” of that generation to empower people “from among the Israelites,” i.e., those that have committed themselves to him and follow his guidance. He draws them nearer to his own stature and grants them of his own strength in order for them to serve the rest of his people.8

[1-2] You shall draw your brother…you shall make sacred vestments: Here, the Torah emphasizes that the “you” of Moses, his essence, was needed to empower Aaron and his sons not only kindle the Candelabrum but to fulfill their role as priests in general (since it was the sacred vestments that elevated them to this office). Furthermore, in the second half of this parashah, the priestly inauguration, it is again Moses who directed and implemented the entire process.

This is because priesthood itself is a holy occupation that interests and affects primarily people who are already interested and involved in holiness. Thus, without Moses’ input, the effect of the priesthood would have been felt (primarily) by those already involved in holiness, who have an obvious connection to the Tabernacle. But once Aaron and his sons were empowered by the essence of Moses, their priesthood was able to affect even those whose connection to the Tabernacle was weak, or not evident at all.9

[2] For dignity and splendor: The priestly garments unified the finite and infinite expressions of Godliness. “Dignity” is a measure of the esteem a person inspires in others. As such, it alludes to God’s finite revelation, which reckons with the limited perception of its recipients and their ability to accept Divine consciousness.

“Splendor,” in contrast, denotes the type of beauty born of a harmonious integration of contrasting features. Such harmony can only be achieved if there is an underlying common denominator that aligns the components and blends them into a whole rather than a chaotic cacophony of competing entities. This underlying force and the splendorous beauty it engenders signify God’s transcendental, infinite revelation, which does not reckon with the limited perception of its recipients, but rather overwhelms them with a higher experience of truth.

The merging of “dignity” and “splendor” in the priestly vestments is the manifestation of God’s supra-infinity—His ability to express Himself in both infinite and finite terms—in a way that our limited perception can appreciate.10

Inner Dimensions

[2] Dignity and splendor: In Kabbalistic terminology: “Dignity” (kavod) refers to malchut, the lowest sefirah, whose task is to metamorphose into the life force of the world below its native world. It thereby becomes “finite” relative to its native world, which remains “infinite” relative to the lower world created out of it.

“Splendor” (tiferet) refers to the sefirah of tiferet, the central sefirah of Z’eir Anpin, which does not descend into the world below its own, and therefore remains “infinite” at all times.11

[5] The turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool, and the linen: The Torah normally prohibits the mixture of wool and linen (shatnez) in clothing;12 one important exception is the priestly garments.13

There are two classic explanations of why the Torah normally prohibits the mixture of wool and linen:14

  • It is necessary to avoid harmful influences.15 In this context, the linen is seen as the harmful influence. Wool was the offering of Abel, Adam’s good son, while flax was the offering of Cain, Adam’s bad son.16
  • It is necessary to avoid harmful mixtures. In this context, neither wool nor linen is intrinsically harmful, only their mixture.

God created many, diverse spiritual energies through which He sustains and governs all the various components of the created world. In spiritual terms, the first reason implies that those spiritual energies that God uses to sustain and govern the forces of evil and impurity should not be allowed to mix with those He uses to sustain and govern the forces of good and holiness.

As we have seen before, however, the forces of evil generally originate in very high levels of holiness, but they have suffered some tragic fall. In its source, then, flax is embodies and expresses a very high level of holiness.17 Thus, the mixture of wool and flax is permitted in the priestly vestments since in the revealed Divinity of the Tabernacle they both expressed their spiritual source, and in their source both are forces of holiness. Their mixture there is therefore not at all harmful.

The second reason implies that the various good and holy spiritual energies are intended to coexist and cooperate, but only as long as none of them lose their identity in the process. A forbidden mixture causes a merger of these energies, which results in one or the other or both being perverted from their proper mission.

This is analogous to the way a king desires his ministers to behave. He wants them to work so well together that their different portfolios integrate seamlessly. Nevertheless, each minister has a specific mission that is distinct from that of every other’s. If these separations are lost, the king will definitely not be pleased.

On the other hand, in their Divine source, these energies are part of God’s overriding oneness. There, there is no diversity or separateness that defines or distinguishes one spiritual energy from another.

Continuing with our analogy of the king and his ministers, this would correspond to the behavior of the ministers when they are gathered in the presence of the king. Here, they must lose all sense of self, and any demonstration of self-assertion—of what makes them different from one another—would be out of place and an affront to the king’s authority. As they bow before him, there are indeed no differences between the ministers, and even those that are total opposites become one.

This explains why, in the context of the second explanation, the mixture of wool and linen is permitted in the priestly vestments. In the intense holiness of the Tabernacle, even diverse, contrary energies could be peacefully joined.18

[10] Six of their names: The names of the twelve sons of Jacob are inscribed on the two shoulder stones in the order of their birth, rather than in the order of their importance or prestige. This underscores their common, unifying factor—the fact that they are all Jacob’s sons. It is this underlying unity—the fact that all Jacob’s sons were united in their devotion to perpetuating Jacob’s ideology and learned how to channel their individual differences and strengths toward that goal—that makes their remembrance before God a source of merit for us. Just as a parent is happy to grant his or her children’s wishes when they are all cooperating lovingly, God is more ready to shower us with His beneficence when we follow in the footsteps Jacob’s sons and unite in our devotion to the ideals of Judaism.

The secret to achieving unity among ourselves is reinforcing our belief in the unity of God. The more we realize that God is the only true existence, the more natural it becomes for us to unite with others.

It is therefore appropriate that the six words and 25 letters of the names on each shoulder stone correspond to the six words and 25 letters in the first verse of the Shema (“Hear O Israel…God is one”),19 the declaration of the exclusivity of God in creation. Inasmuch as we are enjoined to recite the Shema twice a day, the two shoulder stones allude to these two times.20

* * *

In contradistinction to Rashi, Maimonides21 asserts22 that the names of Jacob’s sons were inscribed on the shoulder stones in their birth order according to their mothers, i.e., first the six sons of Leah, who was the first to give birth, then the two sons of Bilhah, then the two sons of Zilpah, then the two sons of Rachel. Furthermore, he maintains that the first name was engraved on the first stone, the second on the second, the third on the first, and so forth, as if the two stones were meant to be “read” side by side, like one stone instead of two.

Thus, while Rashi emphasizes the father, Maimonides emphasizes the mothers. In other words, while both authorities stress that the order is based on their birth, rather than their worldly status, Rashi takes their equality to its ultimate reduction—in their one, common parent, while Maimonides sees their common paternal origin expressed through the different mothers.

In general, quite apart and beyond her contribution of her own seed, the mother’s critical role in gestation is the development of the embryo into a fully-developed person ready to become part of humanity. In this context, Maimonides’ opinion emphasizes how each son of Jacob developed into a unique personality and then submitted to their common goal, while Rashi’s opinion emphasizes how all twelve sons a priori, in their soul-essence, share the same vision and goals.

Just as they reflect two different manifestations of fraternal unity, these two opinions also allude to two perceptions of God’s unity in creation: our earthly perspective, and God’s perspective.

From our earthly perspective, the world presents a question: inasmuch as the world clearly exists, how can we conceive of God as all that truly exists? The answer to this question is that yes, the world exists, but it exists only because God constantly creates it. Its existence is not intrinsic to itself, but depends on its Divine source. This way of affirming the exclusivity of God’s existence from the earthly perspective is referred to in Kabbalah as “the lower perception of unity.” From the heavenly perspective, this question does not exist, since from this perspective the world poses no pretense of self-sufficiency. This perspective is referred to in Kabbalah as “the higher perception of unity.” Rashi’s view of how the names are inscribed on the shoulder stones reflects the higher perception of unity, while Maimonides’ view reflects the lower perception.

Most of us catch an occasional glimpse of the higher perception of unity when God’s perspective becomes suddenly our own. This may happen spontaneously, as a Divine gift, or as the result of following a methodical program of contemplation and meditation on the logical proofs that lead to this higher perception. In either case, when we attain this perspective, our dedication to our Divine mission and the enthusiasm with which we fulfill it becomes inspired and natural.

The rest of the time, we fall back on the lower perception of unity. Even we take the world as a given and have to think twice to remind ourselves that there is a God, we can recall how this world’s apparent independent existence is a sham, and thereby remain committed and loyal to our task.

Generally, we are encouraged to try to experience the higher perception of unity when we recite the first verse of the Shema in the liturgy, the lower perception of unity when we recite the phrase “Blessed be the Name…” immediately after reciting the first verse of the Shema.

Now, as it happens, there are also six words and 25 letters in the phrase “Blessed be the Name…” traditionally recited immediately after the first verse of the Shema when it is read as part of the liturgy. Thus, in the context of Maimonides’ view, the six words and 25 letters of the names on the right shoulder stone can be taken to correspond to the six words and 25 letters in the first verse of the Shema, and the same amount of words and letters on the left stone to correspond to the same amount of words and letters in the phrase “Blessed be the Name….”23

To summarize:

Although the higher perception is of course the higher ideal, there is an advantage to life lived according to the lower perception. First, as much as God appreciates those who can sustain the higher perception, the efforts of those of us who struggle with the lower perception is in a way more poignant and more dear to God. Secondly, the inherent advantage of living life at the lower perception is that we thereby bring the consciousness of God’s exclusivity into the realm of reality where it is by no means taken for granted.

This is why24 even if we attain higher perception of unity when we recite the Shema, we must immediate recite “Blessed be the Name…” in order to descend into the lower perception of His unity.25

[28] The Breastplate must not come loose from the Ephod: The Ephod hung from the High Priest’s back down to his heels, while the Breastplate rested in front, opposite his heart. While the “back” represents the external and mundane—as the disinterest expressed in turning one’s back on someone, the “front” signifies the internal and sublime—as the thoughts and feelings expressed on the face.26 The fact that the Breastplate must not become disconnected from the Ephod therefore means that the High Priest cannot endure any gap between the sublime and the mundane, the internal and the external. What is true in his idealistic and inspired heart must express itself even in his mundane and routine heels.27

[30] Into the Breastplate of Judgment you shall place the urim and tumim: The word urim means “lights,” while the word tumim is related to the word for “sincerity” and “devotion” (temimut).28

In terms of our Divine soul, the urim denotes its brilliant awareness of its Divine source and its fiery yearning to dissolve in it. The tumim denotes its wholehearted sincerity and thorough devotion to fulfill the commandments. This devotion counterbalances the urim experience, dragging it down from its rapture to engage the mundane and elevate it to Divinity.

Thus, the urim and tumim thus express the dynamic of “run and return,”29 the ongoing give and take between ecstatic rapture and humble submission that characterizes the spiritual life.30

* * *

The urim and tumim lost their ability to make the Breastplate function as an oracle after the destruction of the First Temple.31 In general, the Second Temple imparted a palpable Divine awareness to those who entered it precisely as the First Temple did. However, unlike the First Temple, the Second Temple was not able to radiate that awareness abroad, to influence the mundane realm. Similarly, the Breastplate remained intact during the Second Temple era, but its ability to render judgment for all mankind through the urim and tumim did not.

In a larger sense, this situation defines the general condition of exile. The Divine consciousness, goodness, and perfection of the messianic era lie dormant, although intact; only the pretentious façade of the supposedly immutable laws of nature is apparent. The two exist within the same reality.

The ineffectuality of the Breastplate is thus a metaphor for the overall condition we know as “exile.” This is alluded to by the fact that the word for “Breastplate” (חשן) shares the same numerical value as the words for “snake” (נחש)32 and “Messiah” (משיח).33 The primordial snake, which brought sin and confusion to the world, and the Messiah, who will bring clarity of purpose, are, of course, diametric opposites. Yet that is the paradox of Exile: the messianic reality is implicit within exile; our job is just to reveal it.

Allegorically, then, our challenge in exile is to restore the urim and tumim to the cosmic Breastplate—to “decode” the implicit messianic perception, goodness, and perfection within the snakeskin of reality—so that it can assume its proper, revealed role.34

[35] Its sound shall be heard…so that he not die: The Baal Shem Tov was asked: why do your Chasidim gesticulate wildly and shout during prayer? He answered: Have you ever seen a person drowning? No one gesticulates more wildly than a drowning man. No one shouts louder than a man threatened by the thrashing waves of the sea. And no one mocks his motions or questions his cries.

Someone who is at peace does not shout. Someone who feels hopelessly trapped where he is and far from where he wants to be raises a commotion. Similarly, the prayer of someone who feels close to God (a tzadik) is typically noiseless and calm, for such a person is not running away from anything. In contrast, the prayer of someone who feels distant from God is agitated and animated; this person is running, whether from his animal soul, from whatever makes him feel separate from God’s oneness, even from his own spiritual strivings—for they are about him, not about God.

The Jewish people are compared to many fruits, each fruit reflecting another aspect of their common identity. The pomegranate is the symbol of the “empty” Jew, who, though seemingly “empty” of merits is in fact as filled with commandments he upholds as the pomegranate is filled with seeds. The noise of the bells at the bottom of the high priest’s robe was the clamor of the people at the bottom of the spiritual ladder, the excitation of those compared to pomegranates.

Hence the critical need for these bells. A high priest who fails to include those at the bottom in his experience is unworthy of his title. If he enters the holy realm without them he will not live, for the completeness of our people demands that every member, righteous or not, be included.

On one day of the year, however, the high priest enters the inner precincts of the Tabernacle without the bells: Yom Kippur. On that day, we are all like angels; our inherent bond with God is revealed in the Holy of Holies, so bells are unnecessary there. Even those at the bottom experience a oneness with their Creator that is silent and still.35

A Closer Look

[35] Entering the Sanctuary without even one of these three vestments is punishable by death: Thus, if a high priest would enter the Sanctuary without wearing one of these three vestments and leave, he would be liable to death even if he had not performed any priestly rite while inside. But if he would enter without wearing one of the other five vestments, he would be liable to death only if he performed one of the priestly rites while inside.36

* * *

Entering the Sanctuary without even one of these three vestments is punishable by death: Entering the Sanctuary and performing the priestly rites each reflects a different aspect of our relationship with God. On one hand, our relationship with God is affected by our behavior, our performance: the better we behave, the closer we become and the more we earn His love. Performing the priestly rites signifies this aspect of our relationship.

On a deeper level, even without doing anything, we are God’s children and deserve His love on this merit alone. This aspect of our relationship is reflected in the mere act of entering the Sanctuary, for when the High Priest enters the Sanctuary, he does so as the emissary or representative of the people—all the people. He enters in the inherent merit of the fact that they are children of God, regardless of their success in performing His will.

He must therefore wear the three garments that express this inherent worth. The names of the tribes were engraved on the stones of the Breastplate and the Ephod. Those on the Breastplate, which rested on the heart, signified the righteous, while those on the Ephod, which mainly covered the back, signified the returnees. The bells and pomegranates of the Robe signified those still struggling with their evil inclinations. All of these must be represented when the high priest enters the Sanctuary, for in his entrance he must invoke the inherent merit that is common to all strata of his people.

Similarly, whenever we see a person in need of a spiritual boost, we must first make him aware of his inherent worth: that he possesses a soul that is truly a part of God. We must bring him into the realm of holiness so he can recognize his true self. After this, we can proceed to the particulars, helping him shed the negative elements that have accumulated and increase in deeds of light and goodness.37

Chapter 29

[2] An angled form of the Hebrew letter kaf (כ), the initial of the word for ‘priest’ (kohen): The breads, the priests,38 and the animals39 are all anointed in this way, to indicate that they all form a part of the priestly rite. But why was everything anointed in the Greek form of this letter? It seems hardly appropriate to introduce a symbol of Greek civilization—whose religion was pagan and whose materialist philosophy enthroned human intellect as the highest arbiter of truth—into the installation rites of the Tabernacle, the spiritual epicenter of Judaism!

The solution to this is the fact that oil allegorically signifies insight (chochmah), the first component of the intellect. There is holy oil—holy intellect, the intellect the mind uses to learn the Torah, and there is unholy oil—secular intellect, the intellect the mind uses to reason on its own. These two are sometimes at odds, for the Torah’s demands sometimes transcend human intellect. This is why the Greeks fought the Jews and their Torah, and this clash of ideologies came to a head in the Hasmonean struggle that resulted in the miracle of Chanukah.

But there is still another type of oil: the oil used for anointing, which allegorically signifies the intellect of the supra-rational mind. The supra-rational levels of the soul—its Divine will and delight—possess their own brand of intellect. This supra-intellectual intellect is the source of the flashes of insight that initiate the process of conscious intellect.

The holiness of this oil, this level of intellect, can overcome and purify secular human intellect, orienting it totally toward holiness, so that even our “natural” reasoning seeks the Godly aspect of all things and is harnessed for holy purposes.

Thus, the anointing oil achieves its truest fulfillment when it sanctifies Greek materialism and intellect. This is why specifically the Greek form of the letter kaf was used in initiation rites in the Tabernacle.40

Inner Dimensions

[2] The Hebrew letter kaf: The fact that anointing in the shape of the letter kaf elicited the supra-rational faculties of the soul is alluded to by the fact that the letter kaf is associated in Kabbalah with the sefirah of keter. This sefirah is manifest in the soul as its supra-rational faculties.41

[37] Whatever touches the Altar will become sanctified: Spiritually, this principle applies to each of us and our relationship with holiness. Even if all we do is “touch” holiness—without taking the relationship any deeper than an external touch—we become holy. Once we have been privy to a transcendent experience, we are forever changed. We may try to forget, ignore, or run away from it, but our contact with the Divine realm will never again allow us to completely immerse ourselves in the ungodly life, whether to revel capriciously in empty diversions or to seek to better the world through purely secular means.

True, the rule that whatever touches the Altar becomes sanctified applies only to things that are worthy of being brought upon the Altar in the first place. But spiritually, each of us falls into that category, for every Jew possesses intrinsic holiness; the true desire of every Jew is to do what God commands.42

Chapter 30

[1] You shall make an Altar for burning incense: This final section of parashat Tetzaveh sums up its common thread—that Aaron, through the power of Moses’ essence, is capable of revealing the essence of the Jew, the aspect of the soul that we all share equally. It is for this reason that the command to build the Inner Altar is placed in this parashah, whose main subject is the priestly vestments, and not in the previous parashah (Terumah), whose main subject is the Tabernacle’s furnishings (including the other Altar).

The Inner Altar expressed this theme in that the ingredients of the incense included galbanum, which had a bad odor.43 This foul-smelling herb that was an indispensable component of the incense alludes to the wrongdoers of our people, who, despite their repugnant behavior are still an indispensable part of the Jewish nation. By virtue of his or her Divine soul, every Jew possesses inestimable worth and is in fact replete with good deeds, and his or her unique personality plays a crucial role in the destiny of the Jewish people and the world in general.

We must therefore never exclude one of our fellow Jews from the community, even if there are aspects of his or her behavior that would seem to justify this. In fact, our sages teach us that any public prayer or fast that excludes sinners is not a real prayer or fast.

This emphasis in the incense on the commonality of all Jews required that its description be placed in this parashah.44

* * *

Another reason for placing the passage about the Inner Altar here, at the very end of all of the discussions pertaining to the Tabernacle and all that was in it, is that this indicates that this Altar has a unique significance, above and beyond all of the other furnishings of the Tabernacle.

What was different about this Altar was that every other rite that was performed in the Tabernacle had spectators. When the incense was burned on the Inner Altar, however, there was no one present—only the priest burning it and God Himself.45 In fact, our sages point out that even the angels could not be present in the Sanctuary when the incense was burned.46 Furthermore, we are taught that it was specifically this private service that caused the Divine Presence to be most manifest in the Tabernacle.

This lesson of the incense is very relevant in our modern—and loud—world. The ultimate in holy living, and especially in areas of kindness and charity, is when the cameras are not rolling—when we exhibit generosity without publicity or press, merely because it is the right thing to do.47

* * *

As described above, the Tabernacle and its furnishings depict the process of spiritual refinement we undergo as part of our ongoing aspiration toward unity with God. In this context, the Inner Altar signified both keter, the supra-conscious mind, and da’at (“knowledge”), the third component of the intellect. The connection of fragrance to the supra-conscious mind is illustrated by the fact that smelling salts may be used to revive someone who has fainted. Such a person’s consciousness has withdrawn to his supra-conscious mind, yet fragrance has the power to pull it back to its normal level.

The Inner Altar was situated in the middle of the outer chamber, centered between (although further east than) the Table and the Candelabrum.48 Both keter and da’at are situated on the middle axis of the sefirot, keter immediately above chochmah and binah and da’at immediately below them. The middle axis of the sefirot is associated with the imagery of wealth,49 since it is the fullest (consisting of the most sefirot) and reaches beyond the limits of consciousness, into keter.50 Our sages tell us that any priest who would offer the incense would become wealthy.

The Inner Altar was thus the first object encountered as we enter the Sanctuary from the Courtyard. After elevating our animal nature (on the Outer Altar), the next step is identify with our Divine intellect, beginning with da’at and eventually reaching keter.51

[2] It shall be square, one cubit long and one cubit wide: Whereas the dimensions of the other furnishings of the Tabernacle make use of the half-cubit, those of the Inner Altar are in only in single cubits. This alludes to the fact that the incense addresses the inner point of oneness of the Jewish soul. This is the level of consciousness in which we are totally one with God and have risen far beyond any awareness of ourselves as a separate, self-aware individuals.

In terms of the different levels of the soul, this is the level of yechidah (“the single one”), the highest of the five levels.52

[10] Once a year: This “once a year” was Yom Kippur. This law is stated here, rather than in the section of the Torah that discusses the rites of Yom Kippur,53 in order to indicate that the daily incense offering (which took place in the outer chamber of the Tabernacle—the Sanctuary—and could be performed by any priest) was a minor version of the sublime incense offering of Yom Kippur (which took place in the inner chamber—the Holy of Holies—and could be performed only by the High Priest). The incense offering on Yom Kippur was the climax of the service of that day, and expressed the highest level of unity and identification between God and man, the manifestation of the yechidah in time (Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year), space (the Holy of Holies), and person (the High Priest).54

* * *

It is holy of holies unto God: The Inner Altar of the human Tabernacle is our “inner heart” while the Outer Altar is our “outer heart.” The terms “inner” and “outer” heart refer to the two ways we can focus on the objects of our desires and emotions. We focus our “inner” heart on what we really desire, the true object of our emotions. We focus our “outer” heart on things we want only indirectly, because they help bring us to what we truly desire.

The Outer Altar, or outer heart, is reserved for interaction with the physical aspects of existence, the “animals” that must be “slaughtered” and channeled for good. The Outer Altar stood outside, in the Courtyard, because it embraced the mundane aspects of life and gave them meaning, i.e., it elevated the sparks of Divinity within them.

In contrast, the Inner Altar stood in a place where the mundane did not exist; its incense offerings did not elevate fallen sparks. The Hebrew word for “incense” (קטרת) is related to the Aramaic word for “bond” (קטירא), for the Inner Altar’s purpose was to intensify and deepen our bond with Divinity.55

In general, our lives can be divided into holy pursuits (the study of the Torah, performing its commandments, and prayer) and mundane pursuits (eating, sleeping, earning a living, and all other activities the Torah permits). Even when we engage in mundane pursuits, we should do so minimally “for the sake of heaven”56—that is, in order have the wherewithal to engage in our purely holy pursuits—or ideally, in order to “know Him in all your ways”57 by consecrating the mundane acts and using them as ways to connect to God.58

Nonetheless, even if we live up to these ideals of how to go about our mundane activities, we must still relegate them to our “outer hearts.” Our “inner hearts” should always be focused on purely holy pursuits; we should always aspire to maximize the time and energy we can devote to Torah study, fulfilling God’s commandments, and prayer.

True, we must never shy away from the task of elevating the sparks of Divinity latent in the physical world; this is an essential facet of making the world into God’s home. Furthermore, it is a prerequisite for connecting to God through the more direct avenues of Torah study, performing the commandments, and prayer, as is evidenced by the fact that the coals used to burn the incense on the Inner Altar had to be taken from the Outer Altar.59

But at the same time, we must remember that the Inner Altar was reserved exclusively for the soul-ascent signified by the incense. Despite the sublimity of elevating the material world, our real “home” is in the spiritual world, enveloped in walls of the Sanctuary and bound to God.60

Inner Dimensions

[10] The Inner and Outer Altars: The Outer Altar corresponds to malchut of Atzilut as it descends to the lower worlds of Beriah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah to elevate the sparks in these worlds. The Inner Altar corresponds to tiferet of Atzilut, which does not descend into these lower worlds.61