How to Step Towards God: The Spiritual Meaning of the Incense Altar | Aleph Beta

How Can I Take A Step Towards God?

The Meaning Of The Tabernacle's Incense Altar

Immanuel Shalev


How can we attain an intimate relationship with God? We sometimes feel lost, not knowing which steps to take. But God gave us a clue – through the building of the Tabernacle.

In Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20), we hear about the Mishkan’s construction - again! God just told Israel how to build the Mishkan, and now we’re given the exact details once more, as Israel actually builds it. But if you actually take a closer look at the text, you may find some subtle yet significant differences. Why would the Israelites build the Mishkan differently than the way God commanded them to? What can these differences teach us?

In this video, Imu follows the clues, which appear to revolve around the Tabernacle’s altar of incense. What is the incense altar meant to represent? By answering this question, we can discover a hidden guide on how to take a step towards knowing God.


Immanuel: Welcome to Parshat Vayakhel.

In this week's parsha, we hear about the Mishkan's construction. And if you're thinking "wait a minute, I just saw these exact details a few weeks ago in Parshat Terumah and Tetzaveh, you're not alone. Not only are many of the details repeated, but they are repeated verbatim, only before – in Terumah and Tetzaveh – these details were instructions, and here, they are plans coming to fruition. Israel is finally building the mishkan.

Couldn't the text have just said "Israel did as they were commanded," or "Israel built the mishkan, exactly like God had instructed them to?" Why are we getting the details again, in full?

Here at Aleph Beta, we believe the key to unlocking the mystery of repetition lies not in the similarities of the two accounts, but in their differences.

Building the Tabernacle – with Small Discrepancies?

Only once we have pinpointed the differences, can we truly understand why the details were repeated in the first place and what this repetition might be trying to teach us.

Join us as this week as we unravel the mystery of the repeating Mishkan instructions.

Join us as this week as we unravel the mystery of the repeating Mishkan instructions.

See what I did there?

Hi, I'm Imu Shalev, and David Block just had a baby, so you're stuck with me. Mazal tov David, and welcome to the Parsha Experiment. Let's bring up our 20 second parsha recap.

  • After coming down from Sinai in last week's parsha, Moses gathers the people, commands them to keep the Sabbath, and conveys the instructions for building the Mishkan
  • The people bring donations until the builders say that they have too much
  • Then, the construction begins, and we get all the details that we saw in Parshat Terumah and Tetzaveh
  • They build the structure, the partitions, the ark, table, menorah, the incense altar, the bronze altar, the wash basin, and the outer courtyard.

If you sift through the instructions from Terumah and Tetzaveh to the construction in Vayakhel and Pekudei, some glaring differences emerge.

Back in Terumah and Tetzaveh, when God originally instructs Israel to build the Mishkan, the instructions are given from the inside out. First come the instructions for the Ark, then the details about the vessels which are to be used and housed in the Mishkan, and then, finally, the instructions for the construction of the Mishkan itself.

But when the Mishkan is actually built, it gets built inversely. First the structure is erected, then the vessels.

Maybe the text doesn't say "They did as they were instructed" because they actually didn't. Why would they build the Mishkan in the inverse order they were commanded to build it?

There is a second major difference between the two accounts that we need to tackle, one that involves the Mizbeach Haketoret, the incense altar.

The Tabernacle's Incense Altar – an Afterthought?

In Terumah and Tetzaveh, construction of the incense altar appears to be somewhat of an afterthought. It's not given with the rest of the kelim, the vessels. Back in the instructions, first you build the ark, then the vessels, then erect the Mishkan itself, then we have the commandments for the kohanim, the priests, and only then is the incense altar, the mizbeach haketoret, commissioned.

But, in Vayakhel and Pekudei, when the Mishkan is actually constructed, the incense altar is built with all the other vessels. It's given the same focus and attention. Why was this altar not originally commissioned with the other vessels, and how could something so holy be treated as an afterthought?

Let's take a look at the function of the incense altar, and its role in the Mishkan. Perhaps the key to the differences lie there.

What Was the Role of the Altar of Incense?

Every day, the altar was used to bring incense offerings, but its moment of glory is mentioned in Leviticus, on one specific day: Yom Kippur. "וְכִפֶּר אַהֲרֹן עַל-קַרְנֹתָיו, אַחַת בַּשָּׁנָה – once a year, Aaron will make an atonenment on its horns." On that day, Aaron takes incense from atop the Incense Altar and brings it into the Holy of Holies – where God's presence rests above the ark. Then: וְנָתַן אֶת-הַקְּטֹרֶת עַל-הָאֵשׁ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה – Aaron places incense on fire before God, וְכִסָּה עֲנַן הַקְּטֹרֶת, אֶת-הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל-הָעֵדוּת – and the cloud of the incense would cover the ark's lid.

The incense offering is described as forming a cloud. But where else do we have clouds in the Mishkan? In the Holy of Holies... God tells Moses about the ark: וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ, שָׁם, וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת – I'll meet you there and speak to you from above the ark's lid. But it wasn't only God's voice that manifested above the ark, it was His presence as well: "Ki be'anan ereh al-ha-kaporet – "Through a cloud I will be seen above the ark's lid."

The cloud isn't just some detail about the Mishkan, it seems to be its very purpose. When the Mishkan is completed, the verse says, climatically, וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן, אֶת-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; – the cloud covered the tent, וּכְבוֹד יְהוָה, מָלֵא אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן, and God's glory filled the Mishkan. The very word, Mishkan, means resting place – a place for God's glory to rest among His people in a cloud.

What Does The Altar of Incense Represent? Steps to Intimacy with God

That wasn't the first time that God appeared to the people in a great cloud of glory. Almost the same words are used to describe God's glory at Har sinai: "vayishkon kavod HaShem al-har Sinai," the glory of God, rested on mount Sinai, "v'yechasehu he'anan." God's cloud covered the mountain. The same words, mishkan, Kvod Hashem, and vayichas he'anan, appear in both places.

The imagery is awe-inspiring. God is not of this world, we associate Him with the heavens, and yet, at Sinai, in a great act of love and intimacy, He appears in a cloud, and descends from the heavens, in a grand gesture of revelation. But God is not satisfied with His presence resting on a mountain. A mountain is tall, still above the people, and not truly among them. And that's where the Mishkan comes in.

In Terumah, God instructs Moses: "vi'asu li mikdash vishachanti bitocham" – make for me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell amongst them. God seems to mean this literally. My cloud? My presence? It descended from the heavens on to Mount Sinai. But it's not going to stay there, out of your reach. I want you to build a place for me, where I will live among you. I am approaching you from the heavens, and descending into a special place in your camp. Because I want a relationship with you.

Except that unlike the cloud of God which descends from the heavens to rest upon the Mishkan and the ark, we have a cloud of our own. The cloud of incense. the incense cloud is a terrestrial cloud. It is offered by man, by the Kohen, our representative, and ascends, heavenward, in humanity's approach to God.

The Purpose of the Temple's Incense Altar

On Yom Kippur, Aaron would take our cloud into the Holy of Holies, and it would engulf the ark's lid, exactly where God's cloud rested. Our incense cloud would merge with God's. One day a year, at the height of our relationship with God, His heavenly cloud would descend to meet our terrestrial cloud. It was symbolic of humanity's purpose: God's loving approach to His creation, and our reciprocal approach to our Creator.

That was the purpose of the Incense Altar. The incense offering throughout the year represented mankind's terrestrial ascension, our struggle and our desire to constantly be approaching God. One day a year, our cloud actually meets His; heaven and earth meet in the loving embrace of oneness.

Now we may be able to understand the discrepancies between Terumah/Tetzaveh and Vayakhel.

The Meaning of the Incense Altar: Taking A Step Towards Knowing God

In Tetzaveh, the Incense Altar is mentioned last, after all the other vessels and structures of the Mishkan. But perhaps this is because in Terumah-Tetzaveh, God's instructions are given from the perspective of His approach to Us while the incense altar is entirely about our approach to Him. God commissioned the Mishkan because His cloud, His presence, was out of reach. What He truly wants is to be close to us. So in Terumah, God takes the first step. He tells us that He wants a home where His cloud can come down from the heavens to rest among us.

God's instructions detail the building of the Mishkan from inside out for this reason as well. God emphasizes the ark first. It is the place where His cloud will rest, and His presence will emanate outward to the Mishkan, and the rest of the camp.

But in Parshat Vayakhel, when the time comes to finally construct the Mishkan, the Torah repeats the details of the Mishkan from Israel's perspective.

Building the Tabernacle – Building a Relationship with God

Now, Israel, from the midst of their camp, is approaching God. They make their approach by building carefully and deliberately, from the outside-in. They come from the camp, building a space for God among them, and afterward, filling in its essence. For them, the incense altar is not an afterthought, it is part and parcel of their approach to God. It takes primacy and a deserved place amongst the rest of the vessels. Changing the order was our step toward meeting God.

The repetition in Parshat Vayakhel and Pekudei might not yield many new plot points to the reader who is looking for a story to capture their attention, but if you gloss over these parshiyot, you might miss the incredible poetry laden in every repeated word.

Terumah-Tetzaveh is God's love-letter to us, but Vayakhel-Pekudei is our reciprocation, our contribution, and our answer to him.

Join us next week as we wrap up the book of Exodus on the Parsha Experiment.

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