Atonement, Vengeance, and War Mark Our Relationship with God

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Tetzaveh

Two Altars

Our parsha finally gets around to describing the mizbach ha-ketoret, the incense altar (also known as the mizbach ha-zahav, the golden altar), the altar housed within the structure of the Mishkan/Mikdash, in 30;1. Kli Yakar pauses to explain its separate role from the previously described mizbach ha-nehoshet, copper altar, or mizbach adamah, altar made of soil.

That altar, found just in front of the structure, was where animal sacrifices were offered, to atone for sins of the body (he speaks of being plagued be-even ha-het, the stone of sin, a nice play of words on Shemot 20;22, where it was called mizbach avanim, an altar of stones). There, the animals substituted for the sinners’ selves (I think he is assuming Ramban’s idea of sacrifice, the animal being offered alerts us to how we forfeited our right to life with our sins, and it should be us rather than those animals). That altar was three amot tall, about the height of an average man, and the souls of those animals bears some similarity to the soul of the person offering it.

Nefesh and Neshama

Animal sacrifices cleanse our bodies as well as our nefesh, the aspect of our souls similar to animals (tradition thought plants had a soul called ruah, animals had an added element, nefesh, and people also had neshama). Sin burdens the neshama, too (he says hutama’ah, the neshama was sullied), and the sacrifice addressing the animal nefesh cannot help with the sin’s imprint on the neshama.

He supports the point by citing Kohelet 3;21, the spirit of people goes upward, the spirit of the animal goes downward, leaving no reason to think the impermanent animal soul can serve as any substitute for the immortal human one.

The idea of our souls’ progress upward explains why we need an incense altar to atone for our sins. With its plume of smoke and pleasing fragrance rising to Hashem, the incense has mor and levonah, myrrh and frankincense, a reminder of our good deeds mixed in with our failings. So, too, Shemot 30;36 tells us to grind the components of the incense thoroughly, to remind us of our most indetectable neshama, which also needs atonement to be able to rise to Heaven.

Further Symbolisms

The altar is an amah long and wide, to signify it atones for the singular neshama, its two amot in height to show the neshama strives to rise beyond the body (one amah is for its rising through the body, one beyond, I think). The incense is offered morning and evening, to symbolize birth and death, the hope we will return our neshama to our Creator as pure and whole as when it was given us. (He links it to the adjustment of the candles of the Menora, done at the same time, because Mishlei 20;27 tells us ner Hashem nishmat adam, the neshama of a person is a candle of God.)

The Golden Crown and the Reward of the Righteous

The golden crown on the altar speaks to Kli Yakar of the reward of the righteous in the World to Come; Berakhot 17a describes them as enjoying the shining of the Divine Presence with “their crowns” on their heads. He is sure the crowns here are those the Jewish people were given at Sinai when they said na’aseh ve-nishma, committing to obedience before understanding, but then lost at the Golden Calf (in Shabbat 88a).

The righteous reacquire them, the reason the Torah tells us to put this altar just opposite the Aron in the Holy of Holies.

For Kli Yakar, the inner altar deals with our most human part. The services in the courtyard of the Temple, the parts any of us would see, addressed our physical selves, and the part of our souls we share in common with the animals. The repair of our most human neshama happens in the inner room most of us would not ever experience.

Our sins damage our better selves, too, I think Kli Yakar wants us to know, and the Mishkan provided a place to atone for that part of sin, to help us return to the heights we once reached, when we accepted the Torah joyously and enthusiastically.

Don’t Be a Vehicle of Punishment

At the end of laying out how to build the Mishkan, Hashem promises to ensconce the Divine Presence among the Jewish people, 29;45, “and they will know I am Hashem their God, Who took them out of Egypt that I might abide among them.” Rashi says the “that” means “on condition that,” or “in order to,” the point of the Exodus was to reach the state of hashra’at Shekhina, the Presence abiding with the people.

Pesahim 117a pictures the Jews saying lo lanu Hashem, not for us, rather for your Great Name, and Hashem responding I will do it for Myself. Based also on a reading of Tehillim 124 I think too much of a digression to get into, Hatam Sofer sees the Jews asking Hashem not to do something, and Hashem deciding to do it on His terms.

Punishing the Egyptians.

Shabbat 149b has a statement of R. Ya’akov the son of the daughter of Ya’akov, who said anyone whose friend is punished because of him/her will not be brought into God’s area, and certainly God would not let the Shekhina abide with him/her.

It tells Hatam Sofer Jews have a stake in being saved without their oppressors being punished. In all the cases where the enemy gets punished– Par’oh, Sisera, Haman—the revenge against our enemies might, God forbid, deny us closeness with God.

[R. Ya’akov in the Gemara referred to a “friend” being punished because of us; Hatam Sofer is reading the idea expansively, anyone who causes others to be punished—even deserved punishment, apparently—loses some connection to God. He can’t quite mean that, as we will see, but we won’t understand his conclusion without first considering what he has already said.]

Not For Us, O Lord

It explains the Jews’ lo lanu. They were grateful for being saved, but hoped Hashem would do nothing beyond that, for them, lest they become those whose fellows have been punished because of them. The answer Pesahim heard Hashem say, for My sake, assured them the Exodus required punishment of the Egyptians, the building of the second Temple depended on the full defeat of Haman, weakening Amalek’s influence in the world. The punishments would come, but not stimulated by the Jews.

[He has assumed two kinds of punishment, punishment for God’s purposes, and punishment to help certain people. There are times Hashem will punish others because of what they have done to their victims; where the punishment is only because the victims want or deserve it, there is a downside and those people will not be as close with God, I think because they will have been pushing for unnecessary pain and suffering in the world.

But many times, evildoers are punished because it upholds God’s law and rule in the world, sanctifies God’s Name when wrong is addressed fully and forcefully. There, the punishment isn’t for the victim, it’s for God.]

The Exodus Was to Enshrine

The Exodus had severe repercussions for the Egyptians. God’s nonetheless residing the Presence among them shows it was a goal of the Exodus. God took them out because there was no way to abide among them while they were among the evil Egyptians—and punished the Egyptians to make God’s Presence clear.

As an explanation of Rashi, the comment is fairly simple: we know God took them out of Egypt with the goal of hashra’at Shekhina because God punished the Egyptians on His own accord, as it were, not for us. But underlying the comment is a remarkable opposition to punishment to avenge wrongs done to us. In his reading of Shabbat, if anyone is punished because of us, even if they are evil and did terrible things to us, it could be a barrier to our closeness with God.

Unless their punishment is useful or needed independent of us, in which case our relationship with God can proceed unimpeded.

The Ephod for Livelihood, Hoshen for War

Commenting on 28;15, Rashi says the Hoshen, the breastplate referred to as hoshen mishpat, the breastplate of judgment, atoned for miscarriages of justice. Ha’amek Davar knows the Talmudic discussions on the point, such as Arakhin 16a, but thinks those were remez ve-asmakhta, hints and allusions, not the function of the hoshen or ephod. It was with other garments; for example, the same Gemara said the tzitz, the gold band on the High Priest’s forehead, atoned for brazenness, where Ha’amek Davar is sure that was not its main purpose.

Rather, he thinks the ephod was primarily a vehicle for good livelihood, the reason it always comes first, where the hoshen comes to save the Jewish people from enemies, to give them vengeance on those who chase after them [note the very different view of vengeance here as opposed to Hatam Sofer.]

It explains why only kings or other national leaders consulted the hoshen, and usually before war, because that was its primary function. The ephod made life work in the ordinary ways, greased the wheels of society, the hoshen stepped in when war reared its head.

Atonement, punishment, and providence are all parts of our relationship with God. Kli Yakar was concerned with atonement cleansing our noblest selves, Hatam Sofer worried others’ being punished because of us would distance us from God, and Ha’amek Davar was sure that victory at war, vengeance on our enemies, is a good supported by God, a part of how God helps and protects us.

About Gidon Rothstein

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