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Altar Accentuation – Parshat Yitro

Based on a shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles           

Bnei Yisroel have just received the Ten Commandments and experienced God’s presence. While still on this spiritual high, Hashem gives them instructions how to build an altar that will maintain this connection as they bring Him their offerings. Among the specifications are that it be an altar connected to the earth, and that one not hew the stones to build it with a sword. Further, one must build a ramp rather than a staircase to ascend “so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it.” How did these specific instructions aid in achieving the goal of maintaining an intimate relationship with Hashem?

The Toras Emes explains that just as the Jews saw that the Torah itself came from Heaven, so must they realize that everything they have, material possessions as well as spiritual gifts, comes from Heaven and is not a result of personal strength. If you realize this, says the Lashon Chasidim, you will not approach the altar, your prayers, arrogantly. You will refrain from “high stepping,” for that would reveal your “nakedness,” your shortcomings and spiritual failings.        

The Sifsei Chaim explains that the purpose of our constant prayers is for our benefit, to help us maintain a constant awareness of Hashem’s benevolence and constant gifts to us. In fact, the first request in the Amidah is for wisdom and insight, for even these are gifts from Hashem with which we can understand this basic tenet of Judaism and feel the appropriateness of asking for Hashem’s help when we cannot find our way on our own. By acknowledging that everything comes from Hashem, says R. Feuer, we become worthy of having the dominion over creation that Hashem entrusted to Adam, for we affirm that we are just His emissaries. We may also then use His gifts, His food, His materials for our personal benefit. In effect, every moment of our lives becomes a reenactment of the Sinai experience as we internalize the truth that nothing exists save Hashem Himself. But, warns Vayovenu Bamikrah, as we reexperience Sinai, we must remember that we did not ascend to Hashem; rather, He came down to us. He wants our humility, not the symbolic sword in our own hands to build our altar to Him.

Rashi explains that we must be sensitive even to the appearance of causing shame or embarrassment to the altar which is why a ramp was built. How much more so must we be careful not to embarrass a human being created in God’s image. Rav Belsky points out that we “honor” the stones of the altar because they serve a holy purpose. So too each Jew was endowed with a holy spark of the Divine. This in itself is worthy of true honor. When we respect another human being, he senses it and mirrors it back and lets it refract outwardly in all directions as well, thereby forming a network of deep love of one human being for another. Further, continues Rav Pam, each person has a God given purpose in this world, even if we are unaware of that purpose. It begins with respect for the inanimate rock and grows from there to encompass all of creation, culminating in respect for all mankind. This respect for individuals and for society, writes Rabbi Friefeld, is a fundamental precept in the Torah, engendering many laws in the Shulchan Aruch. If you want to keep the Sinai experience alive, you must remain a “mentch” in your dealings with the world around you, from the sefer you put back on the bookshelf, to the food you do not waste, to your neighbor who deserves a sincere good morning greeting. As human beings, we crave respect and validation. Glide smoothly on a ramp in your interactions with others rather than being one step up on them.

The Mizkeinim Esbonen , quoting the Midrash,  offers a homiletic interpretation of the ramp. He refers back to the ladder of Jacob’s dream. The incline of the ladder is similar to that of a ramp. The bottom was planted on earth and its head reached to the heavens. This ladder symbolized the beit hamikdash. Each of us occupies our individual rung of the ladder as we ascend spiritually. Because of the incline, there is no one directly above us whose great accomplishments might discourage us from climbing higher. Nor is there anyone directly below us who will cause us to become arrogant. We must recognize that we each have our own place and our own journey.

If we are to keep climbing toward an ever stronger relationship with Hashem, to strengthen the bond first formed at Sinai, says Rav Pam, we must respect ourselves for the image of Hashem stamped upon us, and recognize this likeness in our fellow man and in all of creation.


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