The importance of the mizbeach for the world
Rabbi Mordechai Gershon
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The importance of the mizbeach for the world
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At the conclusion of the akeida (the binding of Isaac), the verse states:
''וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא ד' יִרְאֶה אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמֵר הַיּוֹם בְּהַר ד' יֵרָאֶה.''
“And Abraham named that place, ‘The Lord will see’, as it is said to this day: ‘On the mountain, the Lord will be seen.’” [Bereishit (Genesis) 22:14]
Rashi: A Private Prayer Place for Israel
Rashi, based upon Midrash Aggada, comments:
May God see this binding of Isaac every year to forgive Israel and save them from punishment, so that it may be said “to this day” – in all future generations – “on the mountain of the Lord shall be seen (an alternate translation of the verse) the ashes of Isaac heaped up, as it were, and serving as a means of atonement.”
Based upon Rashi’s exposition, the place of the akeida is uniquely and specifically significant to the Am Yisrael (nation of Israel) as a place of prayer on the Day of Judgment, providing a reminder of the merits of Am Yisrael, the descendants of Avraham and Yitzchak. As it were, Yitzchak’s ashes are heaped up to serve as atonement for Am Yisrael.
Rambam: A Universal Place of Prayer
However, based upon Rambam’s approach, it seems that the site has universal significance, as he writes;
It is a tradition held by all that the place where David and Shlomo built the mizbeach (altar) on the threshing floor of Aravna the Jebusite [Shmuel II 24:18ff; I Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles) 21:18ff.] is the place where Avraham built the altar on which he bound Isaac; and this is the same place where Noach built his altar when he left the ark; and it is the altar where Cain and Abel brought their offerings, and there Adam the First brought his offering after his creation, as our Sages say: “Adam was created from the place of his atonement.” Rambam, Hilchot Beit Habechira (Laws of the Temple) 2:2
Rambam stresses that the tradition is “held by all” because the site of the mizbeach (which is the site of the akeida) has significance to all nations. The historical background of the site of the mizbeach did not begin with Akeidat Yitzḥak, but before the advent of time, with the world’s creation. The dust of which Adam was created was taken from the place of the Beit Hamikdash (Temple), and it is there that Adam offered his sacrifices, as later his sons Cain and Abel did, and so did Noah.
Our question is: Does the site of the mizbeach have significance for the Am Yisrael only, or is it perhaps relevant to the entire world?
Rambam’s Apparent Contradiction
There is an additional question mark, based upon what Rambam writes in the halacha prior to the one we quoted:
The location of the mizbeach is very precise and may never be changed, as the verse states: “This is the mizbeach for the burnt offerings of Israel.” [Divrei Hayamim II 22:1] Yitzchak our father was bound on the site of the Beit Hamikdash, as it is said “Go to the land of Moriah,” [Genesis 22:1] and in Divrei Hayamim it is said: “Then, Shlomo began to build the House of the Lord in Jerusalem, on Mt. Moriah, where He had appeared to David, his father, in the place that David had prepared, in the threshing floor of Ornan, the Jebusite.” [Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles ) II 3:1]
In this halacha, Rambam quotes the verse which states “This is the mizbeach for the burnt offerings of Israel,” implying that Rambam agrees with Rashi that the site is exclusively for Israel’s prayers and offerings. As well, in this halacha, Rambam relates the history of the Beit Hamikdash site only from the time of Avraham, ignoring the preceding events. Additionally, there seems to be redundancy in mentioning the akeida in two successive halachot. Further, in the first halacha, Rambam refers to “Yitzchak our father,” while in the second, he writes “Yitzchak,” without the title “our father.”
What is the significance of the differences in the wording of these two halachot?
The Beit Hamikdash is Destined for the Nation of Israel Exclusively
The Lubavitcher Rebbi explains that the first halacha, where Rambam writes “Yitzchak our father was bound on the site of the Beit Hamikdash,” deals with the location of the mizbeach within the Beit Hamikdash, while in the second halacha, he specifies that the site of the akeida is the location of the mizbeach. The Beit Hamikdash itself does not have a universal connection, and gentiles are forbidden entry, as the posuk (verse) states: “And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst,” [Exodus 25:8] the command is exclusive to Am Yisrael. Thus, the first halacha presents only a partial history of the Beit Hamikdash site; since the site is not relevant to gentiles, Rambam commences with the akeida, which is one of the founding acts of the Am Yisrael.
The Mizbeach is Intended for All Nations
In the second halacha, Rambam deals in detail with the location of the mizbeach, which, in contrast to the Beit Hamikdash, does have a connection to the nations of the world, Chazal (as our Sages) taught:
Why does the Torah state “a man, a man” [Vayikra (Leviticus) 22:18] (the English translation is “any man,” however, the literal translation is “a man, a man”)? To include gentiles, who may either donate or vow offerings like an Israelite (Gemara Menacḥot 73b).
Since in this halacha, Rambam deals specifically with the mizbeach’s location, he begins with the comment that “It is a tradition held by all (including the gentiles),” and includes the akeida as part of the detailed history of the site, going back to Noach, Cain and Abel and Adam.
This explains why in the second halacha the words “our father” are not added to Isaac’s name. Since this halacha presents the universal importance of the altar, the title “our father” is inappropriate, and the akeida is presented among the events which took place at the site of the altar, not as a uniquely Israelite event.
The Beit Hamikdash is Through the Merit of the Akeida, the Mizbeach in its Own Merit
Based upon the above, the Lubavitcher Rebbi explains an additional distinction between the two halachot. In the first halacha, writing “Yitzchak our father was bound,” Rambam stresses Yitzchak’s role in the akeida (Chazal saw Yitzchak as an active participant, stretching out his neck towards his father’s knife). In the second halacha, Rambam’s wording “The place where Avraham built the altar on which he bound Yitzchak,” focuses on Avraham’s actions. Since the first halacha deals with the importance of the site of the mizbeach to Am Yisrael, Rambam mentions Am Yisrael’s merit in the akeida through the devotion of Yitzchak. However, the site of the mizbeach (the topic of the first halacha) has an inherent sanctity; therefore Rambam writes that it was there that Avraham bound Yitzchak as part of the list of events at the holy site.
This distinction explains the difference between Rashi and Rambam, which we noted above. Rashi deals only with the importance of the akeida in affecting atonement for the nation of Israel, and not with the altar’s site per se. Indeed, the verse itself “On the mountain, the Lord will be seen” refers to the Har Habayit (Temple Mount), not specifically to the site of the mizbeach.
Rashi explains the verse “On the mountain, the Lord will be seen” to mean that God will hear specifically the prayers of Am Yisrael, since they have the merit of their fathers at this place by virtue of the akeida. We saw Rambam’s words that the site of the altar has universal significance, and noted difference in his wording of two consecutive halachot. The Lubavitcher Rebbi explains the differences based upon the distinction between the Beit Hamikdash itself, which is uniquely significant to Am Yisrael as a result of the akeida there, and the site of the mizbeach, which has its own inherent sanctity from time immemorial, and therefore has universal significance.
Am Yisrael was chosen by God to build the Beit Hamikdash on the mountain of God, and there to bring Him offerings. Why does Am Yisrael merit being the representative of all nations on God’s mountain, since the place has universal significance? One of the answers is contained within our comments, based upon Rambam’s approach that the akeida connects Am Yisrael to the Har Habayit in its entirety, not only to the site of mizbeach. However, we find an additional answer in the prayer of Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) upon dedicating the Beit Hamikdash:
''וגם אל הנכרי אשר לא מעמך ישראל הוא ובא מארץ רחוקה למען שמך... ועשית ככל אשר יקרא הנכרי למען ידעון כל עמי הארץ את שמך ליראה אותך כעמך ישראל ולדעת כי שמך נקרא על הבית הזה אשר בניתי''
And also to the stranger, who (is) not of Your people Israel, but will come from a far country for the sake of Your Name … and he will come and pray toward this house ... You shall … do according to all that the stranger calls You for, that all peoples of the earth may know Your Name, to fear You, as (do) Your people Israel, and that they may know that Your Name is called upon this house that I have built [Melachim (Kings) I 8:41-43].
Am Yisrael prays on Har Habayit for the entire world. Am Yisrael does not envision the site of the Beit Hamikdash as a place to focus solely on its own interests, rather recognizes its mission as the representative of all humanity. Thus, not only may a gentile approach God and offer sacrifices to Him, but Shlomo Hamelech asked that God answer the prayers which gentiles offer at Har Habayit.
This is a vision which is uplifting for the entire world.