The Meaning of the Incense Altar
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
Parshat Terumah details the construction of the tabernacle as well as of four of its vessels: the holy ark, the table, the menorah, and the sacrificial altar. Parshat Tetzaveh, which follows Parshat Terumah, discusses: 1) the special clothing of the Kohanim, 2) the daily offerings, and 3) the construction of another vessel of the sanctuary—the golden incense offering altar. Every morning, a special incense mixture was placed on the golden altar. Sforno and Ramban are bothered by the delayed mention of the golden altar. Why was the design of the golden altar not mentioned in Parshat Terumah?
Sforno explains that the Torah separated the golden incense altar from the other vessels, because it performs a different function than the other vessels in the sanctuary. The purpose of the holy ark, the table, and the menorah is to cause the Divine presence to rest within us, as the Torah states: “…and I will dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8-9) The purpose of the sacrificial altar is to bring the honor of God into the tabernacle, as the Torah states “…and the honor of God shall appear upon you.” (Leviticus 9:6) The golden altar’s purpose was to honor and greet both the Divine presence that entered the nation and the honor of God that had descended upon the tabernacle. It was an expression of joy and appreciation for God’s presence. For this reason, many people have the custom of reciting the incense offering at the conclusion of the prayer service.
Ramban quotes a Midrash that Hashem taught Moshe to use the incense offering to stop plagues. Why does the incense offering stop Divine wrath and judgment? Perhaps we can answer this using the concept we have developed regarding the purpose of the incense offering. Divine wrath results from a lack of recognition and appreciation of God’s presence and honor. Since the incense offering demonstrates our appreciation and recognition of God’s presence, it is the antidote to Divine wrath. Let us recognize, celebrate, and be joyous in our service of God. This will, in turn, bring the Divine blessings that our sages say result from the incense offering: it atones, enriches, and brings joy!