The Sidra of Tetzaveh concludes with the instructions for making the altar of gold on which incense was to be burned in the Sanctuary. The Torah is relevant to all Jews and all times, but what is the contemporary application of this passage? We have no Temple and no altar. Seemingly these laws have nothing to tell us in the present. This is, however, not so. For there are two kinds of Temple; and one kind cannot be destroyed. This is the Temple within each Jew, where he still performs his service in an inward reflection of the service of the Sanctuary. The Rebbe explains in detail how one of the laws about the altar can be translated into an important principle about the Jewish soul.

1. Altars in Space and in the Soul

In the Mishnah, the volume of Moed (tractate Chagigah) ends1 with the law that the altar of gold2 and the altar of copper3 did not require ritual immersion because they could not become impure. According to Rabbi Eliezer, this was because they were considered like the earth (which can not become ritually unclean). The other Sages, on the other hand, held that it was because they were plated with metal. The metal covering was considered subsidiary to the inner structure (which was made of shittim wood), and this could not become unclean.

Since the Torah is the word of G‑d, who is infinite, it is itself infinite. Infinite in time, because it is eternally binding. Infinite in meaning, because every verse has innumerable layers of interpretation and significance. At the literal level (peshat) it contains laws and narratives; at the level of allusion (remez) it points obliquely to the deeper principles of Judaism; homiletically (drush) it outlines the religious ethic of the Jew; and esoterically (sod) it contains the clues to the mysteries of the experience of G‑d.

Thus the law about the altars of gold and copper has more than just a literal significance. It has a moral that is relevant to the Jew even when there is no Temple and no altar.

When G‑d told Moses to erect a Sanctuary, He said: “And they shall make Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell in them,” meaning, in the soul of every Jew. Thus, even though the physical Temple is destroyed, the inward Temple which each Jew makes within himself survives, indestructible. And the service which he conducts in the reaches of his soul mirrors in every respect the service of the Temple and Sanctuary. So their laws, which appeared at first sight to have no contemporary application, are in fact precise instructions for the inner life of the Jew.

2. Purification

In the Sanctuary, there were many vessels, of different kinds, each with their own function. The analogy of this in the Jewish soul is its many facets and capacities: Intellect, emotion, will and delight. It may be that in the course of serving G‑d, some ulterior motive, some unholy desire, intrudes—perhaps secular, perhaps even contrary to G‑d’s will.

This is the equivalent of one of the vessels of the Sanctuary becoming impure. His thoughts have become impure, and he must seek ways of removing the impurity so that they become again worthy of taking part in the service of the inner Sanctuary. For within the Sanctuary, no impurity was allowed.

3. Fire and Sacrifice

There are amongst Jews, men of copper4 and men of gold.5 Those who are rich in spiritual worth are like gold: Their every act is like a precious coin. The poor in spirit are the copper coins of the religious life. But every Jew, however he behaves inwardly or outwardly, preserves intact at the heart of his being an essential desire to do G‑d’s will—a spark of faith, sometimes hidden, sometimes fanned into flame. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch said: “A Jew does not want, nor is he able, to be torn away from G‑dliness.” This spark is where the altar of the Jew’s inner Temple is to be found.

On the altar, burnt offerings were brought. They were animals, consumed by a fire from G‑d. And this happens within the Jew. The sacrifice is of himself. The animal is his “animal soul,” his egocentric desires. And the fire which consumes them is the fire of the love of G‑d Whose undying source is the spark of holiness at the essential core of his soul.

4. Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages

The point of the law quoted from the Mishnah is this: Whether a Jew belongs to the “altars of gold” or is one of the “altars of copper,” as long as he reminds himself that essentially he is an altar where the fire of G‑dly love consumes the “animal soul” of his self-centered passions, he cannot become impure. For then he is like the earth. Just as the earth which we tread on is a symbol of humility, so our soul becomes void of any will except the will of G‑d, as expressed in the Torah. Thus we say in prayer: “Let my soul be unto all as the dust.”

This is the reasoning of Rabbi Eliezer, who was himself the personification of humility. His greatness was such that it was said that, “if all the sages of Israel were in one scale of the balance, and Eliezer the son of Hyrcanos in the other, he would outweigh them all.”6 Yet he would never concede that he had any merit himself, and the Talmud tells us that “he never said anything which he had not heard from his teachers.”7 Living so inward a life, he naturally saw only the inwardness of other Jews. He saw beyond their superficial differences to the point where each is equal in their essential attachment to G‑d and Torah. He saw that the life lived in Torah is the only Jewish reality. And he taught his students, by his self-effacement, that the true exercise of intellect comes only with humility and complete openness to G‑d.

The other Sages reasoned differently. They held that this is too difficult for all. Not many can sustain it all the time. They paid attention to the superficial differences amongst Jews. They knew that one occasionally stumbles on the path. Men of gold can become hypnotized by gold. Men of copper can also become over-enamored, by their own, hard-earned, resources. But still—they maintained—the altar of the Jew can never become impure, because it is always covered. The differences between Jews, and their occasional failings, are mere surface coverings. What lies behind is always pure, and so powerful that eventually the covering must become subsidiary to it. The spark will prevail, and the Jew will return to the truth which—inwardly—he never really lost. The truth is that Jewish existence is and can only be a life of Torah and fulfilling the commandments.

The vessels of the inward sanctuary are—as their name implies—receptacles. When they are pure and their service is pure, they are the receptacles of the Divine blessings, physical as well as spiritual, as the Torah tells us:

“If you go according to My statutes and keep My commandments… the earth will give forth its produce and the trees of the field its fruit.”8

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. III pp. 910-912)