Toward the end of last weeks Torah portion Mishapatim, Moses, Aaron and his two sons Nadab and Abihu, as well as the seventy elders of Israel prepared to ascend Mount Sinai where Moses was to receive the commandments of God. As a precursor Moses read the book of the covenant to the people of Israel so that they might confirm their allegiance to Hashem, and take upon themselves the yoke of being His people. The youth brought elevation and peace offerings before Hashem and the blood was placed upon an altar that was placed by the foot of the mountain.
When Moses and his entourage ascend the mountain they have an epiphany of the living God, and they see him seated upon His throne, His feet placed upon “sapphire bricks.” What a stunning contrast from the bricks of mud that they forced to make for Pharaoh. The bricks for Pharaoh were to build tombs, but now Israel had the opportunity to build a Mishkan, a Tabernacle that the God of all creation would dwell in. The choice was Israel’s, bricks of mud or bricks of sapphire; accept the yoke of Pharaoh’s kingdom, or the yoke of God’s kingdom. So building the Mishkan would actually be like partnering with God to build a new world, with God, and for God to dwell in our midst.
This weeks portion Terumah describes in detail all of the furnishings and accouterments in the Tabernacle, many of which are replicated in the modern synagogue. Some synagogues include styles and décor that are unique to certain architectural periods, but most of the furnishings are constant and universal to the synagogue experience. Most synagogue décor will include an aron hakodesh (a holy ark), a bema (the podium from where the torah is read), a ner tamid (an eternal light), Torah and haftarah scrolls and of course such pragmatic furnishings as chairs as well as decorative elaborations and artwork to set the building apart and to make it special. But there is always one important piece of furniture that is missing that is central to the biblical narrative of the Mishkan. That is the altar or the m’tzbeach, which is especially prevalent in this week’s parasha.
I find it easiest to appreciate the profundity and the importance of the m’zbeach through a simple acronym – mechilah (forgiveness), z’khut (merit), b’rakhah (blessing), and chayyim (life).
mechilah (forgiveness) – The altar in the Mishkan was the channel by which the entire community of Israel could seek reconciliation with God from Whom they had become estranged by sin. The m’tzbeach was a constant reminder of the fragile nature of peace in this world. Therefore it was also a place for reconciliation with fellow sojourners. Before sacrificing the sh’lamim or peace offerings the worshipper was required to make amends to others who they may have inadvertently wronged. This is a reminder to us that we must first seek forgiveness from others, recognizing our own culpability and faults before coming before God who is the creator of all. We must also be willing to forgive others even as we have been forgiven. This requires recognition that we are all faulty.
z’khut (merit) – Gratitude, humility and contrition found an outlet on the altar. By the exercise of these virtues life was ennobled and merit acquired. The righteous standards of God were inculcated through this liturgy of restoration. Merit therefore was not earned, rather it was apprehended through faithfulness and obedience to God. The m’zbeach serves as a reminder that our worth and value comes from our Creator, who made each of us in His image.
b’rakhah (blessing) – By being true to the teachings that center around the altar, Israel received the Divine blessings. Only those who are blessed can be a blessing. Israel has been commanded to be a “a holy nation and kingdom of cohanim (priests).” The m’zbeach points us toward our ultimate destiny, to be both agents and harbingers of a “new humanity” imaging the redemptive character of God in this world.
chayyim (life) – The altar stands as a monument along the path to life everlasting, to those things which abide forever, truth, righteousness and holiness. This may seem counter intuitive since the m’zbeach is the place where animal sacrifice came to an ordained demise. Creation though is not devalued on the altar by the specter of death as some might imagine. Rather the altar beckons us to leave behind the apathy and cynicism so characteristic of the larger society and to embrace the hope that comes with faith in God’s redemptive mission. The m’zbeach is not a symbol of gross asceticism, rather it encourages us to put to death the desires that master us and gain control of our lives. This is the place to deal with the constant gradual, partial encroachment of death in each of our lives. Life is also a process of dying. Routines and stagnation are forms of death in life. People often stop growing long before they are recognized as dead. Such a “dead” person cannot be an agent of redemption. The key to vital living is perpetual renewal of life; a renewal that is attained through a continual process of examining life and constant rebirth. In turn the embrace of death on the m’zbeach allows us to partner with God by bringing a more abundant life into this world, and hastening Gemmar Tikkun (the final repair of the world) .
It is true that there is not a physical m’zbeach in any synagogues today, even as there are no longer animal sacrifices. But symbolically the m’zbeach of Yeshua should stand in the center of all Messianic Jewish worship. Though it cannot be seen, its symbolic presence should be felt in all that we do and all that we are. It is a reminder of God’s unconditional forgiveness, and the merit that is imputed to all who embrace and imitate the faithfulness of Yeshua. Also it is a reminder of the blessings, which we receive, and the blessings that we are to be. Finally the m’zbeach of Yeshua should be the monument in our sanctuary, in our homes and in our hearts that reminds us of our divinely initiated task to help bring the abundant life of God into the world.