Much has been written about the surprising placement of the golden incense altar at the end of this week’s parsha. In short, the reader expects its instructions to be given together with all of the other vessels in last week’s parsha. Instead, it is tucked away after the discussion of the priestly garments and the daily offering.
Many good answers are suggested, explaining why this altar is somehow fundamentally different. Yet it appears to me that none of the answers go far enough in realizing just how different, in this case, different actually is. To truly understand it, we must first realize that this altar’s biggest anomaly lies in what the its incense is meant to do.
The incense that burned on this altar has always attracted special interest for its unusual life-giving properties that we see later in the Torah (Bamidbar 17:11-13). Those properties, however, are related to what we already see in this week’s pasha: its power to effect kapparah in such a way that the sin seems to dissolve into thin air. Perhaps this is one of the underlying reasons that the incense has drawn so much attention in the Jewish mystical tradition. The incense kapparah is one of the very few examples of processes being reversed, wherein a person who has sinned is brought back to being as if he had never sinned. This is as opposed to just about everything else we know all around us, wherein processes continue on a forward course. Once snow melts on a mountain, for example, the water will only flow downward.
It is true that a sinner also attains kapparah by giving the sacrifices connected with the other altar, the bronze outer altar. Still, that kapparah is not an act of removal of the sin but its transferal onto an animal. With this method, the sin’s toxin does not disappear. Rather, it is just transferred to another organism. Going back to our mountaintop, one cannot have the water go upwards, but one can divert its course in another direction.
In view of the two radically different types of kapparah, it can easily be said that what we have here is two Tabernacles. The first is the normative one focused on sacrifices that fit into the natural world. The second is a supernatural structure meant for emergencies and as a reminder that God can avail us an escape in a worst case scenario.*
Perhaps we could compare this to the relationship between a nation’s nuclear arsenal and its conventional forces. They are both part of the same general structure (armed forces meant to coerce or pressure other nations to submit to the will of the first). Yet how the two work and the frequency with and situations within which one uses them are radically different.
This is far from an academic point. The Torah wants us to understand that the emergency approach of the golden altar is one we need to stay away from. The metaphor of nuclear weaponry is very apt in this regard. Such weaponry is more to make a point about a nation’s power than anything else. It is specifically designed not to be used. In the same way, God wants us to know that He can reverse natural processes at will, while making it clear that we dare not plan our lives around it. Or, as the rabbis taught about even the holiest people, one is not allowed to rely upon a miracle. And so to drive this point home, the seat of the supernatural in the tabernacle compound is mentioned all on its own, markedly after we are through reading about the functions of the tabernacle more in line with the natural world.
Indeed, man is easily attracted by the short cut that the supernatural road provides. And there is a place for the supernatural in God’s world. But that place is tucked away under lock and key. It is there as a symbol of God’s power, not for us to use. It is there as a beacon, and not as a commodity.
*If my theory is correct, one could still wonder why this altar appears in the context of the other tabernacle furniture in all of the other places it is mentioned. Without getting overly technical, this is a typical example of what in Brisker Torah is known as shnei dinim, meaning that regarding one application (its function and mechanism), the golden altar is completely dissimilar, but regarding another application (its location), it is identical. All the subsequent discussions of the tabernacle are functional and relate to its location. The current discussion in is the only place where the vessels are being discussed in theory, before they are actually created in actual space. Since location does not exist in its theoretical discussion, there is no need for the golden altar to be discussed in the same discussion as the other vessels. On the contrary, it should not be discussed there.