The God Squad: The altar of burnt offerings — Part I
Every year on the Jewish High Holidays I send you an edited version of my High Holiday sermon. The differences between this one and the one I preached is that this one lacks some jokes, but on the positive side, this one is too short to put you to sleep.
Today, we continue our four-year spiritual exploration of the klei kodesh, the holy objects that were in the Temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.
Three years ago, I taught you about the mishkan — the ark of the covenant, which as you know, was discovered by Indiana Jones and is now in Steven Spielberg’s beach house.
Two years ago, we studied about the menorah — the seven-branched candelabrum that was taken by the Romans after their conquest of Jerusalem and is now also in Steven Spielberg’s beach house.
And last year, we considered the kior — the washbasin of the priests, made of mirrors from Egyptian bondage and which is not in Steven Spielberg’s beach house because the décor was not right.
This year, the holy thing we shall study is the mizbeah — the altar upon which the burnt offerings of animals were offered.
The mizbeah, the altar, was arguably the most important of all the klei kodesh. All the other holy objects on the Temple mount were either spiritual decorations like the menorah or spiritual relics like the ark of the covenant. The altar was different. The mizbeah was a spiritual tool. The altar was the device that made biblical Judaism work.
To be biblically Jewish one had to offer animal sacrifices and the altar was the place of sacrifice. Three times a year — on Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot, thousands of Jews made pilgrimage to Jerusalem to affirm their Jewishness by bringing sacrifices of animals and grain and fruits. The altar sustained the hereditary priesthood and the priesthood sustained Judaism.
What did the altar look like? The altar of sacrifice, the mizbeah ha-olah, the main altar is described in Exodus 27:1-8. — “You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits broad. The altar shall be square, and its height shall be three cubits. And you shall make horns for it on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze.
The altar was the largest and most sacred Weber barbecue grill ever made.