The Routine vs. The Novel

The rituals of the tabernacle and Temple called for strictly defined roles--but also allowed for new expressions.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

The latter part of the book of Exodus describes the construction of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that served as the focus of God's presence during the Israelites' wanderings in the desert and beyond. These sections are characterized by a love of regularity and order. The same carefully selected few carry out the same intricately prescribed rituals the same way each day, using sacred objects, which have been standardized down to the last detail.

Each aspect is described twice, first as God commands Moses, and then in its actual implementation, which matches the plans almost to the letter. In contrast, extemporaneous religious expressions, like the Golden Calf, are hazardous at best. There is no room for the novel amid the routine.

This week's and last week's parashiyot [Torah portions], when taken together, shed further light on the essential tension between tradition and innovation, routine and novelty, within the Jewish religious experience. Last week's parashah, Terumah, describes the collection of donations and provides the plans for the tabernacle itself as well as the most important implements, including the ark, the altar, the table and the menorah.

This week's parashah, Tetzaveh, then focuses on standardizing the human factor--first, the garments that the priests will wear, and then the ritual that will initiate Aaron and his descendants into that noble task. At the very end of Tetzaveh, separated from the accounts of all the other primary implements, comes the commandment to create an altar to be used for incense (Exodus 30:1-10).

Listed Separately

Many commentators address the question: Why should this small acacia-wood altar, covered with beaten gold, be listed separately from the others? The Meshekh Hokhmah [a biblical commentator] suggests that of all the implements, it alone is not strictly necessary for the functioning of the tabernacle. The lights may not be lit without a menorah, the sacrifices may not be offered without the main altar, but incense may be offered even if the golden altar is absent; therefore, as an optional accessory, it is listed after the standard equipment.

Also commenting on Exodus 30:1, Ramban [Nahmanides] offers the opinion that there is a functional difference between the altar and the other types of implements. The other implements serve the role of bringing God close to the Jewish people. The incense fulfills the special role of "stopping the plague," assuaging God's anger at ritual infractions taking place in the divine presence. This role only becomes necessary after the rest of the implements have been put into place, after God has been brought near.

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Rabbi Joshua Heller

Rabbi Joshua Heller is the rabbi at Congregation B'nai Torah in Atlanta, GA. Previous to that, he served as director of the Distance Learning Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.