There were two altars in the Mishkan. Parshat Terumah teaches us about the copper altar,1 upon which animal sacrifices and meal offerings were brought, and Tetzaveh tells us about the golden altar,2 upon which incense was offered.

The last Mishnah of Tractate Chagiga (which is also the last Mishnah of the Order of Mo’ed) speaks about these two altars. It states that they cannot become impure. The reason, according to Rabbi Eliezer, is, "since they are like earth;" the Torah calls them earth, which cannot become impure. According to the sages, the reason is that "they are [only] coated [with gold and copper];" since the coatings of gold and copper are just that, coatings, they are secondary to what is underneath. And since what is underneath cannot become impure, the coatings don't become impure.

As we know, G‑d is infinite, and His Torah, which is His knowledge, is infinite as well. That means that it applies to us at every time and in every place. It therefore applies to each and every one of us, as if it was given today. It also has an infinite number of interpretations, as every one of us has a different soul, and we see the Torah through the lens of our soul. We also approach Torah from our own circumstances and our own paradigm.

What is the lesson that we are meant to learn from this teaching, that the two altars cannot become impure?

The Vessels of Your Soul

We are all a small Temple, where the Divine Presence wants to reside. Just as the Temple had different vessels in it, so do we have different aspects of our makeup: our minds, thoughts, and emotions, etc.

Sometimes we can have a mundane, unholy thought. It is also possible to have an inappropriate sinful thought. In other words, it is possible for one of the person’s "vessels," his mind, thoughts, feelings, etc., to become impure. When this happens, we have to find a way to make the vessel pure again, that it should be worthy of being a Temple vessel, where G‑d could reside once more. How does one go about doing this?

Remaining Pure

People can be generally divided into two categories, whether physically or spiritually: rich or poor. By the rich, everything is gold, and by the poor, their money is copper.

Irrespective of how one feels inside or acts on the outside, the essential spark, the pintaleh Yid, can never be touched, and it can never become impure. And that is the altar of the person on which we sacrifice the evil inclination and come closer to G‑d. When we connect with the pintaleh Yid, we become totally pure.

Why do we become totally pure? "Since they are like earth," and earth cannot become impure. What is the symbolism of earth? The earth is subjugated before everyone, as we all tread on it. When we connect with the pintaleh Yid, we are totally nullified before G‑d, and as we say at least three times a day, "And my soul should be like earth before all."3 When we are nullified, there is no self. There is only G‑d's will that is revealed in the Torah.

"Since they are like earth," are the words of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanus, who was known as Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol (“the Great”), who was greater than all the sages of Israel together,4 and still he had no ego, as the Talmud5 tells us, "He never said anything that he hadn't heard from his teachers." He was like earth, nullified before G‑d, and that was the path of service he taught his students to follow. On a deeper level,6 he was at such a high plane, that he only saw that everything was the essence of G‑d. He didn't see the external shell, whether it was gold or copper. He only saw the essence, earth.

The sages say, "since they are [only] coated [with gold and copper]." They are saying that not everyone is at Rabbi Eliezer's level. Most of us recognize the exterior, and at times we will have failings. The wealthy see the gold, and they may be tempted to follow the desires that come with affluence. And the poor, all they have is copper, and they may be tempted to do something dishonest to get ahead.

Whether rich or poor, we must realize that the gold and copper are only an exterior shell, that is nothing and nullified to what is underneath, the pintaleh Yid. Ultimately, we will come to realize this and do teshuvah, and we will merit to see the coming of Moshiach. May he come soon.7