11 Feb To Thine Own Self Be True: The Jewish Version
Why No Steps Ascending to the Altar
CLIMBING THE HOTEL
Bill, Jim and Scott were at a convention together sharing a large suite at the top of a 75-story hotel. After a long day of meetings, they were shocked to hear that the elevators in their hotel were broken, and they would have to climb 75 flights of stairs to get to their room.
Bill said to Jim and Scott, “Let’s break the monotony of this unpleasant task by concentrating on something interesting. I’ll tell jokes for 25 flights, Jim can sing songs for the next 25 flights and Scott will tell sad stories for the rest of the way.” At the 26th floor, Bill stopped telling jokes and Jim began to sing. At the 51st floor, Jim stopped singing and Scott began to tell sad stories.
“I will tell my saddest story first,” he said. “I left the room key in the car.”
This week’s Torah portion, Yisro, capturing the most important and defining event in Jewish history, the covenant crafted between G-d and a people chosen to become the paragons of morality and holiness in an earthly and mundane world, concludes with this strange instruction:
“You shall not ascend My Altar on steps, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it.”
Indeed, because of this injunction, both in the Tabernacle (the Mishkan) and the Jerusalem Temple (the Beis Hamikdash), a smooth slanted ramp, rather than stairs, led the priests up to the altar to carry out their services.
This is a difficult law to comprehend. Why would the Torah prohibit steps for climbing up to the altar?
The biblical commentators explain (2) that the priests serving in the Temple wore short pants, spanning from the thighs to the knees. Ascending stairs requires one to take wide, extensive and spacious steps, which would expose more of their body, and would not befit the awe and reverence required in
G-d’s home. The Torah, therefore, required a ramp ascending to the altar, since this allows the priest to take small strides in a serene, dignified and respectful manner.
The great 11th century French biblical commentator Rashi (3) explains this in greater detail: “Steps require you to take wide strides. Although this does not in actuality expose your nakedness… nonetheless, taking wide steps is close to exposing nakedness. Thus, by taking wide steps, you treat the stones of the altar in a humiliating manner.” In a moving sequel, Rashi adds that this mitzvah teaches us an important moral lesson. “If regarding these stones which lack the perception to be hurt by their humiliation, the Torah says, ‘Since there is a need for them, do not treat them in a humiliating manner,’ your fellow human being who is created in the image of your Creator and is sensitive to humiliation, how much more so must you treat him with respect!”
Yet two questions must still be addressed.
1) A well-known axiom in Jewish thought is (4) that every single mitzvah contains, in addition to its literal meaning, a psychological and spiritual interpretation. The physical and concrete dimension of a mitzvah may not be relevant anymore, yet its metaphysical message, transcending the boundaries of a particular milieu or location, remains timelessly relevant in our inner hearts and psyches.
The same is true, of course, concerning this mitzvah. In the absence of a Temple and an altar, the instruction not to use stairs, is, practically speaking, irrelevant. But we must search for the spiritual idea behind this mitzvah, which remains as timely today as it ever was.
2) As mentioned above, this week’s portion captures the most significant event in the history of the Jewish people and of the world — when G-d, in a moment never to be repeated again — revealed to an entire nation His existence, charging it with the mission of saturating the world with holiness. This was the moment when the Creator communicated to the world His universal laws of morality and ethics. If we believe that somebody created the world and cares about its destiny, it is fair to assume that at some point this Being communicated with its inhabitants His intent in creation. This is indeed what transpired at Sinai. It was the event that gave human history, in historian Paul Johnson’s words, “the dignity of purpose.” It paved the road in the jungle of history.
One would expect that the closing sentence of this portion would somehow capture the power and grace of this extraordinary moment, one that in many ways shapes the moral history of humanity. Yet the Torah chooses to culminate this section with what seems to be a simple and mundane law: “You shall not ascend My Altar on steps, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it.” Why?
FINDING YOUR OWN TRUTH
It is precisely in these final words that the Torah shares with us a deeply moving lesson regarding the human quest to “ascend G-d’s Altar,” to climb the ladder of moral and spiritual enlightenment.
Often in life, people are confronted with situations and experiences that inspire them to move their lives to a different level, to live deeper and to love deeper. They are moved to make changes in their habits and behaviors.
Yet sometimes, as a result of a genuine longing to abandon a previous lifestyle of shallowness, falsehood, addiction, promiscuity, loneliness, or sluggishness, people begin to take wide and expansive steps, determined to reach great peaks in short spans of time, craving to master profoundly elevated modes of consciousness and lifestyles.
Thus, immediately following the most spiritually enlightening and earth-shattering event in history, when G-d shared Himself with humanity, the Torah culminates with this declaration: “You shall not ascend My Altar on steps, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it.” Do not become who you are not. Do not jump to places beyond yourself. Every movement forward must be internalized and integrated into your individual identity because when you take steps that overwhelm you, rather than elevate you, you may end up naked and exposed. You might fall down fast and hard. People who overestimate themselves, often end up underestimating themselves.
Never disregard, the Torah is teaching us, the value of one small move in the quest for truth. Wherever you are in life, you can serve G-d genuinely according to your own potential and situation. One can discover the light of G-d on every plane. Challenge yourself to encounter your own inner light and truth; you need not climb on the truths and experiences of others. Grow you must; challenge yourself you must. But take the ramp, not the stairs. Don’t jump ahead of yourself, because your authentic self may be left behind. And when you discover that, you may fall down and lose everything. You might end up bare.
King Solomon put it simply: “Do not stand in the place of the great.” Why? Not because by stepping into the shoes of the great, you will be robbing somebody else of his or her place of greatness. Rather, by doing so, you will be denying yourself your own individual process, the one that is great for you. Real people are inspire by other people, but never copy them.
Of course, there are moments you make take a big jump that may initially seem frightening. Big things happen when ordinary people muster the courage to actualize extraordinary visions. The path to recovery and to healing always requires a drastic leap. Yet we must ensure that these big steps enhance our true identity rather than crush it; that they embody our inner calling, mission and power, not a superficial emulation of other people’s standards and behaviors.
“To Thine Own Self Be True,” is also true in the religious and spiritual life. Sometimes even more. G-d wants you to be you, not me. He Wants me to be me, not you.
WINE AND VINEGAR
A Talmudic vignette illustrates this point in a rather interesting way.
The Talmud quotes one of its great sages, Mar Eukva, saying the following curious statement about himself: “I am, in comparison to my father, what vinegar is in comparison to wine. When my father would eat meat, he would wait a full 24 hours until he ate cheese. But I? When I eat meat, I eat cheese during the following meal” (around six hours later.
The obvious question is, if this Talmudic sage held his father’s behavior in such high esteem, to the extent of seeing himself as vinegar compared to his father as wine, why didn’t he change his behavior and follow his father’s custom? Why didn’t he turn himself into “wine?”
The answer may be that Mar Eukva was keenly aware of the truth that his father was on a totally different spiritual level than he. Waiting a full 24 hours after eating meat before he would eat cheese would in some mystical way enrich his father’s soul. For the son to engage in this behavior, it would be merely an act of copying and mimicking his father’s behavior. For his soul, this would be a meaningless experience.
Since according to Jewish law, after eating meat one need wait only six hours in order to eat dairy products, this sufficed for Mar Eukvah.