A central focus of Jewish consciousness through the ages is the Temple in Jerusalem, the point where the world and G‑d meet almost tangibly. The Torah describes in detail the prototype of the Temple, the portable Sanctuary built by Moses and the Jewish people in the Sinai desert.

Last week's Torah portion described how the Sanctuary should be built. It depicted the Courtyard, with the Copper Altar for offerings. Then, in the west, the actual inner Sanctuary, with walls of cedar wood overlaid with gold and a roof formed of delicate tapestry. Last week's portion also described most of the sacred objects which were to be placed in the inner Sanctuary: the Golden Ark, containing the Tablets of the Law; the Golden Table; the seven branched Golden Menorah oil lamp. However, one important object was left out, as we shall see.

This week's Torah reading, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10), gives the details concerning the garments of the "priests," the officiates in the Sanctuary: Aaron and his sons. It then describes how the Sanctuary and the priests themselves should be sanctified with anointing oil, and how the services in the Sanctuary should begin.

At the very end of this week's Torah portion, one last item is described. This is the Golden Altar, on which the priest would offer incense twice a day, every morning and afternoon. It was placed in the inner Sanctuary, near the Golden Menorah.

The sages ask a question: why is this important part of the Sanctuary left to the very end? Surely it belongs in last week's portion, in which all the other details of the Sanctuary were described?

One answer is: the Golden Altar is left to the end because it expresses the purpose of the entire Sanctuary. It is the climax.

This is because the service at the Golden Altar was solitary. Other services in the Sanctuary were public. The Jerusalem Talmud (Yoma 5:2) states that when the priest entered the Sanctuary to offer incense on the Golden Altar, he was alone with G‑d.

This stresses the private, personal dimension of all Jewish observance. Because of the social warmth of Jewish life, we sometimes forget the joy and fulfillment which Judaism can give us as an individual. Each mitzvah (divine commandment) is a personal link with G‑d.

We might carry out the mitzvah alone, or with a group of people. Yet there always is an intimate personal dimension. The focus on the Golden Altar in the Torah portion reminds us that through Jewish practice in our day to day world, every individual can enter the fragrant atmosphere of the Sanctuary and offer incense to G‑d.1