Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz
In the final verse of this week's Torah portion (Exodus 20:23), G-d commands Moses regarding the building of the altar, "Do not go up to my altar with steps, so that your nakedness not be revealed on it."
Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, explains that G-d instructed that a ramp be built instead of steps to be used by the priests to ascend to the altar. The reason for this was because using steps caused one to broaden his stride, thereby exposing parts of the body that would usually be covered. This would be disrespectful to the altar. Rashi points out that though it would not actually be a disrespectful act (due to the pants worn by the priests, which prevented any exposure), it comes close to a disrespectful act, and was therefore deemed a minhag bizayon, a minor show of disrespect. G-d commanded that even this should not be tolerated.
Rashi adds that from here we can derive a tremendous lesson on how to treat a fellow Man. If the altar which has no feelings and takes no offense at its own denigration, and we are commanded not to act disrespectfully towards it; all the more so does this apply to our fellow Man who is created in the image of the Creator and takes offense at his denigration.
Why is it that we need to learn about respecting our friends from the altar? Isn't love of our fellow Jew one of the basic precepts in the Torah? The Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiva, teaches that the mitzvah of "loving your neighbor as you love yourself" (Leviticus 19:18) is a fundamental rule in the Torah. The Talmudic sage Hillel HaZaken paraphrased this and said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to others. This is the essence of the whole Torah. All the other commandments are merely an explanation of this mitzvah." Yet, Rashi finds it important to teach this seemingly extra lesson from the altar. Furthermore, it seems from Rashi that the only reason for being respectful to the altar was because there was a need for it. Had there not been a special need, it would not have been a problem for one to take broad strides up towards it.
Constructing a ramp is actually directly related to respecting one's fellow Man. The only way for the kohanim (priests) to reach the altar, to offer the service on behalf of the Jewish people, was through this ramp. Therefore, any act relating to this service that is done with even the smallest hint of disrespect, would in effect be disrespectful to the kohanim doing the service, as well as to the entire Jewish people for whom the kohanim would offer the sacrifices.
The lesson employed by Rashi is expounded upon by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, as follows: The altar has no feelings at all. Yet since it serves a need for the priest, therefore, even this minor act of taking strides is considered a show of disrespect. How much more so should this be regarding a fellow Man that does take offense at his denigration, and was created in the image of his Creator. We must be extra careful not to act with even the slightest hint of disrespect. For anytime dishonor is shown toward another Jew, this would actually be a show of disrespect toward G-d, for Man was created in His image.
When we show respect and honor toward another Jew, we are actually showing respect and honor toward G-d, who in turn reciprocates us with honor and respect. This will lead to the ultimate respect of the Jewish nation that will be revealed with the coming of Mashiach (Messiah).
Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz is the director of Chabad of Alpharetta in Georgia.
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