The Humble Altar of Earth

kabbalah kabbalah & me law parsha Feb 05, 2024

The Humble Altar of Earth: A Deeper Connection to Divine Presence

By: Rabbi Amichai Cohen

As we reflect on the awe-inspiring moment of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, images of fire, lightning, and the resounding echoes of divine communication fill our minds.

It was a monumental experience, a convergence of heaven and earth that forever linked the two realms through the profound gift of the Torah.

However, amidst this grand celestial spectacle, a humble yet significant detail emerges — the command to use an altar of earth for sacrifices to Hashem.


The Stark Contrast:

In stark contrast to the heavenly expereince of the Torah's revelation, the altar of earth represents simplicity and humility.

While cosmic wonders marked the divine encounter on Mount Sinai, the earthly altar signifies a connection grounded in the basic elements of our existence.

The Deeper Significance of Earth: Earth, in its essence, embodies humility. The Talmud notes that it is the very ground we all tread upon, yet it remains untainted and does not contract impurity (Tumah). 

Earth symbol of 'nothingness,' yet paradoxically, it is the fertile ground from which growth and life spring forth.

This earthly connection serves as the foundation for embodying the teachings of Hashem and living a life in accordance with His Torah.

Adam is named Adam because he came from the Adama- earth and is commissioned to embody Hashem in the world.


Ramp vs. Stairs:

The Torah further instructs that the altar must not have steps but instead a ramp for the Kohanim (priests) to ascend.

This seemingly subtle detail holds a profound message.

The absence of steps signifies that humility is the path to ascendancy, and the ramp represents a gradual ascent — a reminder that elevation in spirituality is achieved through consistent, steady effort rather than sudden leaps.

The Parshat Yitro- Exodus 20:23 verse says, "Do not ascend My altar by steps that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it."

Famed commentator on the Torah- Rashi explains that the prohibition serves as a profound lesson in sensitivity and humility. 

Rashi takes the metaphorical interpretation of 'nakedness' and 'steps,' urging us to broaden our steps through virtues and avoid behaving with disdain. This insight extends beyond individual conduct, emphasizing a compassionate attitude towards others, even inanimate objects like stones.


1. Sensitivity and Humility Towards Others:

Drawing from this verse, we derive essential principles of sensitivity and humility in our interactions with others.

The analogy of the stones, lacking the intelligence to be concerned about their disgrace, reinforces the notion that, despite differences, we must not treat anyone disrespectfully.

This teaching urges us to recognize the needs of others and approach them with respect and empathy, considering their unique circumstances.


2. Be Present Now:

Delving deeper into the significance of the altar's design, particularly the instruction against using steps, Chassidut offers a profound perspective. Steps, it explains, symbolize our connection to the past and the future, creating a construct where we can measure our progress. However, this construct is tinged with ego, as we constantly compare our present position to where we once stood.

In contrast, the ramp, with its absence of distinct steps, represents a solid, unchanging platform.

As we ascend or descend on the ramp, there is no before or after – it symbolizes a process of being fully present in the moment. This teaching encourages us to transcend the ego-driven need to dwell on past accomplishments or future anxieties, urging us to focus on the present and embrace each moment with mindfulness.


Spiritual Lesson:

The prohibition against steps on the altar serves as a spiritual lesson, prompting us to adopt an approach of humility and sensitivity, not just in our interactions with others but also in our spiritual journey.

The wisdom encapsulated in the commandment regarding the altar of earth resonates deeply with the teachings found in Parshat Mishpatim, which predominantly addresses civil laws.

At first glance, civil laws may appear to lack a spiritual dimension. Yet, a closer examination reveals a profound connection to the humility and sensitivity advocated by the altar of earth. This alignment underscores a crucial revelation – Hashem desires us to know and connect with Him within the fabric of our everyday lives and, most significantly, within the present moment.


Mishpatim- Civil Laws and Spiritual Lessons:

Parshat Mishpatim delves into many civil laws, covering matters ranging from property disputes to ethical business dealings. While these laws may seem grounded in the practicalities of human interaction, their essence aligns with the principles of sensitivity, humility, and ethical conduct emphasized by the altar of earth. The Torah's meticulous guidance in civil matters reflects the divine intent for us to infuse spirituality into every aspect of our lives, even those seemingly mundane and secular.


Knowing Hashem Within Our World:

In uniting the teachings of the altar of earth with those of Parshat Mishpatim, we unravel a profound truth – Hashem invites us to know Him not in a distant realm, but within the intricacies of our world.

The juxtaposition of spiritual lessons with civil laws underscores that ethical conduct, justice, and humility are integral components of our divine connection.

The present moment becomes a gateway to understanding and embracing Hashem, not just in moments of grand revelation but in the everyday interactions and decisions that shape our lives.

Shabbat Shalom! 



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