I. Incense and Presence
The surprising placement of the command to build an incense altar teaches how to properly apprehend and respond to God’s presence. Is a feeling of divine immanence unique to Israel’s holy places or can we find Him wherever we are in the world? A debate over an aspect of the mishkan (tabernacle) opens a window into a Medieval philosophical debate on this crucial issue.
The details of building the mishkan is described in Parashas Terumah (Ex. 25-27:19). Subsequently the priestly garments and priestly inauguration are described in Parashas Tetzaveh (Ex. 27:20-29:46). After all that, we return to describe the incense altar in the mishkan (Ex. 30:1-10). Shouldn’t this passage appear in the prior Torah portion?
II. Why Incense?
Many answers are suggested for this. I believe the Rambam had it in mind when he explained the purpose of the incense altar. Noting a mundane challenge of the sacrificial order of the Temple, Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:45) suggests that the incense was intended to mask the horrible stench of slaughter. Unlike other elements of the sacrificial order, the incense was purely pragmatic and therefore, presumably, separated in the text from the primary section of the mishkan.
Ramban (Commentary to Ex. 30:1) explains that the passages of the mishkan and priests discuss bringing God’s presence into our midst. The incense is our response to God’s presence. To my reading, Ramban sees two purposes two the incense: it appeases God’s anger to our misdeeds and warns us to behave appropriately in the sacred space. (Tur [ad loc.] states that, according to Ramban, the incense is in God’s honor.) Rabbenu Bachya Ben Asher (ad loc.) argues that Ramban’s approach successfully undermines Rambam’s functional explanation. However, perhaps we can explains the different views based on a debate elsewhere.
III. Synagogues as Temples
That a synagogue has sanctity is clear from the Mishnah but the nature of that sanctity is a matter of debate. The Ran (Commentary to Rif, Megillah 8a sv. u-man de-shari) suggests the status is rabbinic but quotes Ramban as saying that synagogues have the biblical sanctity of an item used for a mitzvah (like a lulav). The Yere’im (no. 324) believes that a synagogue, as a “small sanctuary” (mikdash me’at), attains the same sanctity as the Temple and mishkan. According to most commentaries, Rambam agrees with the Yere’im (e.g. Arukh Ha-Shulchan, Orach Chaim 153:4; Achiezer 2:49).
According to Ramban, God’s presence in the Temple is unique. No other place can compare. Synagogues are merely gathering places for prayer, facilitators of a communal mitzvah. However, according to Rambam, the divine presence rests on a synagogue much like it dwells in the Temple. Of course, there are different levels of God’s presence. The two need not be identical to be of the same type.
IV. Responding to God
Returning to the incense altar, according to Ramban we respond to God’s presence with the incense offering. Rambam cannot accept this because, according to him, we regularly confront God’s presence outside of the Temple and mishkan and do not respond with incense. If we must offer incense when encountering the shekhinah, why don’t we do so in our synagogues? After all, according to the Rambam our synagogues attain a similar sanctity. We encounter the shekhinah every day, even in exile.
Rather, according to the Rambam, the incense is unconnected to God’s presence. We do not need to respond that way. Therefore, the Rambam is free to speculate of more pragmatic reasons for the incense altar in the mishkan and the Temple.