In our parsha Hashem reveals Himself to the nation of Israel on Mount Sinai. The nation hears the Ten Commandments, surrounded by an awesome atmosphere of fire and Divine power. We would expect this revelation to be followed by the most important commandments and principles in the Torah: the foundations of our faith, as we find at the beginning of the Book of Devarim, or perhaps the ideals of social justice and uprightness, as conveyed in parshat Mishpatim, or creating the conditions for the Divine Presence to rest amongst the nation – which we find in the parashot of Terumah and Tetzaveh.
To our surprise, however, the very first commandments that are given, right after the Ten Commandments and the reiteration of the prohibition against idolatry, are the laws pertaining to the altar: “An altar of earth shall you make for Me…” (Shemot 20:21). Why do these laws occupy such an important position? And if the Temple (or Sanctuary) service and vessels are of such primary importance, why are we not commanded here also concerning the Ark of Testimony, the menorah etc.?
Let us first ask ourselves: what is an “altar of earth”? The commentators are divided in their understanding of this command. Rambam, in his Book of Mitzvot, interprets the law literally: it is an altar made of earth; until the Divine service was concentrated in and limited to a single place – first Shilo, then Jerusalem – it was permissible to erect such an altar anywhere and to offer sacrifices upon it. Other commentators, however, understand this command as referring to the copper altar of the Mishkan, while some opinions identify the “altar of earth” as the stone altar mentioned directly thereafter (“And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone…” – 21:22), or as the altar of the Temple (Rashi).
Two midrashim on the verse in question shed fascinating light on our question:
“Rabbi Anan said: anyone who is buried in Eretz Yisrael is considered as though he is buried beneath the altar, as our verse reads: “AN ALTAR OF EARTH (“mizbah adama”) shall you make for Me”, while elsewhere (Devarim 32) it is written, “He will forgive His land (“admato” – “His earth”) and His people” (Ketubot 111a).
According to this midrash, the “altar of earth” is none other than Eretz Yisrael. It is the place where we carry out our service of Hashem, and also the place where we bury our dead. It is in Eretz Yisrael that we discern Divine Providence, with national reward, punishment and atonement. Anyone who is buried in Eretz Yisrael is considered as lying beneath the altar.
“Rabbi Berakhya and Rabbi Helbo taught, in the name of Rabbi Shmuel son of Nahman: (Man) was created from the place of his atonement, as it is written (Shemot 20), “AN ALTAR OF EARTH shall you make for Me”. The Holy One said: I shall create him from the place of his atonement; would that he will live.” (Bereishit Rabba, 14:8)
According to this midrash, the “earth” (adama) referred to here is identified with man (adam). The altar of earth is man himself. Like the earth, man carries the possibility of atonement: just as the earth may be tilled, ploughed and sowed anew, so man always has the option of “turning over” his evil ways, uprooting his sins and starting anew.
In light of these two midrashim we can understand why the “altar of earth” is the natural continuation of the Ten Commandments. All of our activity in the service of Hashem takes place on two levels. There is the national level, where it is specifically the “altar of earth” that expresses the idea of Eretz Yisrael as the place of our service – as opposed to the other sacred vessels, whose character is universal. There is also the personal level: man is an altar. His central mission in life is to turn himself into a vessel to fulfill Hashem’s will. This is the essence of the idea of “accepting the yoke of Heaven”, as well as the essence of the idea of atonement: if a person’s deeds are tainted and defiled, he may repair them through his service of Hashem.
Last week we witnessed once again the spilling of Jewish blood in the streets of Jerusalem. May Hashem give us strength to repair our deeds; may He see our pain and our blood that is spilled upon His altar, and may He forgive His land and His people.