The last part of this week’s Torah portion of Tetzave discusses the Incense Altar in the Mishkan: “You shall make an altar on which to bring incense up in smoke of acacia wood shall you make it” (Shemos 30:1). The Torah goes on to describe the dimension of the altar and where it was placed in the Mishkan, which was right by the curtain separating the Kodesh from the Kodesh Hakodashim that held the Holy Ark, and the process of the incense offering. The Braisa d’Meleches HaMishkan, quoted in the Stone Chumash, says the section of the Mishkan outside the Kadosh Hakedoshim was ten cubits wide and the Altar was placed directly in front of the Ark, at center of the area’s width. The Menorah and the Shulchan were closest to the Curtain, and the Alter was midway between them, but further east. (Click here for a link to photos of the layout of the Mishkan)
The Bechor Shor says the reason for this altar is strictly to burn incense, because the kingship in Heaven is like kingship on earth; just like kings have perfumes and sweet smells all over the palace. The altar for offerings is like the kitchen with its counters and lights, and the kitchens are distant from the throne room of the king. Whereas the Shulchan, Menorah, and incense altar are closer and the Kadosh Hakedoshim, which is considered the room of The King and the place of His throne. Not that Hashem needs this, ‘For Mine is every beast of the forest the Behemoth of a thousand mountains, I know all the bird of the mountains’ (Tehillim 50:10, 11). It also says after that, ‘Were I hungry I would not tell you, for Mine is the world and its fullness’ (there pasuk 12). Rather, Hashem wanted to make the Jews righteous as the sages said, ‘Hashem wanted to bring merit upon the Jews therefore He mounted upon them a lot of Torah and Mitzvos’ (Mishna in Makkos 3:16). This is also why He rested His Shechina (Holy Presence) amongst them, so that fear and trepidation of Him would be upon them. And He enacted to bring offerings for oaths and gifts, and sin offerings and guilt offerings, daily offerings and mussaf offerings to atone for them. For when a person sins and he sees and knows he is atoned for [through an offering] and he knows he is clean [of his sin if he also repented] then he will be more careful to not sin again and dirty himself in sin. But if one would be unaware of an atonement and he would sin today and tomorrow and he would just think I am dirty with sins anyway, then he would not be as careful [to not sin] anymore. So too, the Sages teach us, ‘once a person transgressed a sin and repeats it, he makes it as if it is permissible to himself’ (Yoma 86b). That is why Hashem set into the world the concept of sacrificial offering, as an atonement and Yom Kippur for forgiveness, in order to habituate themselves to not sin. It’s a parable to a person who has cleanly pressed white clothes. As long as his clothes are white, he is very careful not to get them dirty and stained. But once they get dirty, he is not as careful. That is why Hashem commanded us about the Service and sacrificial offerings. And that is what Shlomo says, ‘At all times your clothes should be white’ (Koheles 9:8).” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It is self-understood why it’s worthwhile for Hashem, by nature of being an all-perfect and all-giving Omnipresent to provide us with tons of mitzvos; so that we can perform them and accrue loads of merits, . It also makes sense that Hashem set up a system for when we do make mistakes, and the sacrificial process was a means to cleanse ourselves of those mistakes and deter us from further sin. However, why did Hashem in essence “belittle” Himself by focusing His Holy Presence, the Shechina, within the Beis Hamikdash in order to instill an extra sense of Fear of G-D into us, and receive the same type of honor and respect as a human king would, to the extent that the Bechor Shor in last week’s Torah portion says that incense was used by kings to make their palace smell nicer, all the more so Hashem, The King Of All Kings, should have incense burning in His palace, and His Shechina would not come down and rest in Holy of Holies until the incense was offered? Isn’t it a contradiction of sorts for Hashem to “belittle” Himself for the sake of instilling us with more fear?
Imagine a king dressed up in fancy royal clothing, fine robes, a jeweled crown, and he comes to visit one of his cities. The citizens come out to greet him and present him with a personalized sports team jersey. He accepts it graciously because he wants his citizens to appreciate and respect him, but he really isn’t sure what he would do with such an item. There is no need for it in the royal palace; he only accepts it to gain a closer relationship with his followers. This is how Hashem feels with the incense burned and menorah lit in the Beis Hamikdash. It’s a sign of respect to the king; it’s not needed for Hashem, but He is willing to accept it in order that His subjects will revere, love, and respect Him.
This is Hashem’s humility, as we find in the beginning of the chapter on Humility in Sefer Maalos Hamiddos: “My Children, come and I will teach you the quality of humility. My children, you should know that the quality of humility is a great quality and honorable in order to reach all the other character traits. For we see that Hashem acts with humility with His creatures. We find this in a medrish (Medrish Tanchuma, Vayera, 2), ‘our sages have taught that in 7 places Hashem dealt with the lowly groups…’ Our sages elsewhere said (Megilla 31a), ‘Having mentioned the haftara read on Yom Kippur, the Gemara cites that which Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Wherever you find a reference in the Bible to the might of the Holy One, Blessed be He, you also find a reference to His humility adjacent to it. Evidence of this fact is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Writings… It is repeated in the Prophets: “For thus says the High and Lofty One that inhabits eternity, Whose name is sacred” (Isaiah 57:15), and it is written immediately afterward: “In the high and holy place I dwell with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Isaiah 57:15)…’ Meaning, even though ‘I dwell in exaltedness and holiness, with Me is the contrite and humble spirit.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We see from here that Hashem, whom King Dovid said about Him in Tehillim (93:1) “Hashem will have reigned, He will have donned grandeur; Hashem will have donned might,” that He is the only One with the right to be haughty and lofty and still acts with humility and personally deals with, helps, and sustains every living creature, even the lowest of the low. Not only that, but He accepts the honor given to him though in reality it is petty and unneeded.
We can learn a very practical lesson from Hashem’s humility. We too must show humility and be willing to lower ourselves down to whatever level is needed to help others. We must be able to relate to others and have them be able to relate to us so that we can guide them and teach them how to go on the proper path and live a wholesome life. For example, if you are a parent you should be ready to come down to the floor and sit with your little children to play a game or read a book with them. This creates a bond which in time creates a deep love, trust, and emulation of you, the parent, by the children. And when they come home from school and they drew a picture of you and him or her to hang on the wall or fridge you should accept it with excitement and gratitude even though it looks quite silly and it’s a waste of paper and space on the wall. But that’s the child’s way of showing love and respect, and it creates an everlasting bond between child and parent. By doing this we are emulating Hashem!
Hashem in the same way accepts the incense and rested His Shechina in the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash after the incense was offered. Even though it’s a waste and unneeded for Him personally. However, it was a display of honor to The King and created a closer relationship between Him and us, His subjects. May it be an example to us all to instill humility into ourselves and apply it, where appropriate, into practice.