After the end of the description of Ma’amad Har Sinai, but before the beginning of the section of Mishpatim, a small section of Pesukim (Shemot 20:18-22) appear. They begin with Hashem’s final commentary on the event: “Atem Re’item Ki Min HaShamayim Dibarti Imachem,” “You saw that I spoke to you from the heavens” (20:19). This leads into the commandment not to make gods of silver and gold. The section concludes with three laws of the Mizbei’ach: that it be made of earth or stones, it not be built with cut stones, and it should not include stairs.
What is the relationship between the various elements of this section? Both Ibn Ezra and Ramban explain the connection between the first two Pesukim: Hashem notes that He spoke to Bnei Yisrael directly from the heavens, with no middleman. Therefore, he instructs them not to make middlemen of gold and silver, for there is no need for material representations of Him. What, however, is the connection between this and the Mizbei’ach?
The Pesukim hint to a connection through the verb “La’asot,” “to make.” The Torah writes, “Lo Ta’asun Iti Elohei Kesef VeiLohei Zahav Lo Ta’asu Lachem. Mizbei’ach Adamah Ta’aseh Li… VeIm Mizbei’ach Avanim Ta’aseh Li…” “Do not make with Me gods of silver and gods of gold; do not make them for you. Make an altar of earth for Me… Or if you make an altar of stones for Me…” (20:20-22). The Torah uses this verb twice in the prohibition of making metals gods and then uses it twice in the commandment to construct the Mizbei’ach. This suggests some sort of replacement: the commanded making of the Mizbei’ach is to replace the prohibited making of metal gods.
One way to view this replacement is through the lens of the Rambam’s famous approach (Moreh Nevuchim 3:32) that while Avodah through actions of Korbanot is not ideal, Bnei Yisrael needed to transition away from action-based Avodah Zarah. Among the examples of transition he quotes is the Mizbei’ach. According to him, the Mizbei’ach indeed replaces the metal gods – Bnei Yisrael must make a Mizbei’ach only because the familiar form of Avodah to them is making metal gods, and before getting entirely rid of the concept of Avodah through creation of physical objects, Hashem must shift the focus of that creation from the metal gods to the Mizbei'ach.
According to those who disagree with Rambam, however, the shift from metal gods to Mizbei'ach is not an incremental shift as part of a larger transition; rather, it is the fundamental shift from Avodah Zarah to Avodat Hashem. Comparison of the phrases in the Pasuk reveals the major aspects of this change. The metal gods are made “Iti” and “Lachem” – with Hashem and for Bnei Yisrael. The Mizbei’ach, on the other hand, is made “Li” – for Hashem. Thus, an important part of the change from metal gods to Mizbei’ach is a different relationship toward the object. What exactly this change in relationship is, however, needs further clarification.
Ibn Ezra adds another strand to connect the two sections. In the context of the Mizbei’ach, the Torah writes, “BeChol HaMakom Asher Azkir Et Shemi Avo Eilecha UVeirachticha,” “In any place I mention My name, I will come to you and bless you” (20:21). Ibn Ezra (Peirush HaAroch, 20:19) explains that this reassures Bnei Yisrael that they need no metal gods. While they might have thought to create a middleman between Hashem and themselves, Hashem needs no middleman, for He Himself will come to Bnei Yisrael and bless them. In this vein, Ibn Ezra explains the word “Iti” – the prohibition is to make metal gods that will stand “with” Hashem as His middleman between Him and us. While this explains why “BeChol HaMakom…” is appropriate here, how does the Mizbei’ach, the context of “BeChol HaMakom…,” connect to this idea?
The Gemara (Zevachim 58a, quoted by Rashi 20:20), in a Derash upon the words “Mizbei’ach Adamah,” “altar of earth,” requires the Mizbei’ach to be connected to the earth. It thus prohibits building the Mizbei’ach upon arches or other structures that will leave a hollow space below the Mizbei’ach. What does this requirement symbolize?
The Mizbei’ach serves to connect man on earth and Hashem in heaven. It thus replaces the connection of “Ki Min HaShamayim Dibarti Imachem” that existed at Har Sinai. Indeed, the Mizbei’ach is, at first glance, not so different from the middlemen that Hashem prohibits making from gold and silver. There is, however, a very big gap between the two. The middlemen are made with Hashem: they are an attempt to enable Hashem to connect with man. In this sense, they are for man – they facilitate easier access to man. Hashem, however, needs no such help. He can take care of His side of the connection: “BeChol HaMakom Asher Azkir Et Shemi Avo Eilecha UVeirachticha.” Man needs to shift his focus to build something “for Hashem” – to enable man to bring himself to connect with Hashem. For this purpose, man builds the Mizbei’ach, which must be connected to the earth, for man must strive to build the relationship from the earth (man) to the heavens (Hashem), not the other way around.
The replacement of metal gods with the Mizbei’ach thus teaches man an important lesson: when he experiences difficulties in his relationship with Hashem, he must not attempt to change Hashem to repair that relationship. Rather, he must work on himself, and bring himself from the earth up to Hashem.
It is very appropriate, therefore, that in this context the Torah prohibits using stairs in the Mizbei’ach, since that might lead to inappropriately revealing wide steps (20:23). As the Sefer HaChinuch (41) points out, the stones of the Mizbei’ach cannot see and will not care about this issue. However, one must not use the excuse that, since the specific circumstances don’t call for modesty, the nature of the Beit Hashem has changed. Instead of changing his view on appropriate conduct in the Beit HaMikdash, one must improve himself and seize this opportunity to develop his perspective on the importance of the Beit HaMikdash and the Yir’ah required within it (Sefer HaChinuch 41).
The other Mitzvah in this context expands upon the same idea. The Torah commands, “VeIm Mizbei’ach Avanim Ta’aseh Li Lo Tivneh Et’hen Gazit Ki Charbecha Heinafta Aleha VaTechalaleha,” “Or if you make a Mizbei'ach of stones for me, do not build them hewn, lest you wave your sword over it and defile it” (20:22). Explanations of the symbolism of hewn stones and the sword vary, but most are similar to that of the Sefer HaChinuch (40), that in order to set in our minds that the Mizbei’ach’s purpose is atonement, blessing, and peace, we must use peaceful tools to build it. When a person has a problem in his relationship with another, his options are similar to those when he has the same problem with Hashem: he may try to change the other person, or he may try to change himself. An extreme example of the former method would be the sword, which solves the problem by eliminating the other person. The Mizbei'ach, however, stands for the opposite ideal. Instead of eliminating the other person, one must work on himself to develop a peaceful perspective, which will hopefully help to heal the relationship.