At the end of this week’s parasha is the commandment to build the מזבח הקטרת, the golden altar inside the משכן for the incense:
What’s striking about this is that it is at the very end of the long נבואה that started back in the beginning of פרשת תרומה:
And it is out of place. תרומה starts with all the vessels of the משכן, then the structure of the משכן itself, then the vestments of the כהנים, then the inauguration ceremony, then goes back to this “forgotten” vessel of the משכן. The commentators generally assume that this means that the מזבח הקטרת was somehow different from the other vessels. Ramban says that the משכן existed to bring the שכינה into the world of humanity, but the קטרת was to provide the “cloud” that would protect us from that experience (see Rabbi Leibtag’s shiurim which develop this idea):
That’s one approach. The Netziv has a different idea about why the מזבח הקטרת is separated from the other כלים. The gemara talks about the symbolism of the כלים:
We, להלכה, turn toward the ארון, as the symbol of our connection with הקב״ה. But this emphasizes that each of the vessels has its symbolism, of how ה׳ manifests in the world. The ארון is נבואה and תורה as given by ה׳ to us. The שולחן is Divine providence and the מנורה is חכמה, the תורה that we learn and innovate (see the פחד יצחק on חנוכה for much more on that idea). But what does the מזבח הקטרת symbolize, and why don’t we turn to it?
The קטרת symbolizes the מצוות בין אדם לחברו, and the מזבח הקטרת is where we “offer” our גמילות חסדים to ה׳. It’s not the sort of thing we should pray for; “Please G-d, make me be nicer to other people!” Just do it. It’s not fundamentally a religious thing. The Netsiv illustrates this with an amazing interpretation of יצחק's reaction to יעקב when he thinks it’s עשו:
The “שדה” is where יצחק prays:
Then why bring the קטרת into the משכן? The Netsiv says that, pace Ramban, the שכינה, the presence of the Divine in this world, requires גמילות חסדים. We cannot bring ה׳ into the world simply through our מצוות בין אדם למקום:
The משכן exists because of the גמילות חסדים inherent in it:
Then the Netziv brings an astonishing proof of this idea: the “anti-משכן” of פסל מיכה:
And when that is lost, the משכן is destroyed (as a structure; the parts remain intact):
And it is this idea, that the קטרת represents our behavior, may be why the Torah does not specify the details of this מצוה. It’s up to us.
This message, that the משכן cannot exist without the מצוות בין אדם לחברו, matters in our own lives:
So ה׳ says at the end of our parasha, “now that you have built for Me this wonderful temple, show me what you can do. Bring me your קטורת”.