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Altared State

We don’t need to wait to be chosen as a sandek to experience being a Mizbeiach


As I write these lines, I’m still wearing the suit and tie I put on early this morning in preparation to serve as sandek at a grandson’s bris.

The story is told of the great Rav Ephraim Zalman Margolios, author of Sh’eilos u’Teshuvos Beis Ephraim, who received a request from Rabi Akiva Eiger to take his place and preside over a simchas tena’im in Brod, where Reb Ephraim Zalman lived — Rabi Akiva Eiger was unable to travel from Posen, where he was rav. Reb Ephraim Zalman happily responded in the affirmative, and when the day came, he made his way to the hall where the tena’im was to take place and saw to it that all was done according to halachah.

But even once the writing and signing of the tena’im was complete, the Beis Ephraim didn’t rush out. Instead, he lingered on until it was all over. Surely an adam gadol like him had other things to do, and his continuing presence piqued the interest of one of the guests.

When asked to explain, Reb Ephraim Zalman said, “I’m here as the personally appointed representative of Rabi Akiva Eiger himself. But the moment I leave this hall, I lose that rare status — so don’t you think I’d want to squeeze every moment I possibly can out of the opportunity?”

The Rema, based on midrashim, compares the sandek at a bris to the inner, golden Mizbeiach upon which the Ketores incense was offered twice daily. The mohel is the analogue of the Kohein who places the Ketores on the Mizbeiach for it to emit its holy fragrance. And it is the sandek’s knees that constitute the Mizbeiach itself. Indeed, the sandek’s power to bestow brachos on the day of the bris may stem from the fact that building the Mizbeiach similarly brings blessing (see Chochmas Shlomo, Hashmatos, Yoreh Dei’ah 265:11).

This morning, when the mohel had completed the actual bris, I handed over my grandson, this newly minted Jew, to be held as he was given his name. But then I hesitated. I didn’t want to leave the chair on which I had sat holding the rach hanimol during his entry into Avraham Avinu’s covenant. I, too, wanted to linger on, maximizing the rare opportunity to be nothing less than the Mizbeiach itself, for my physical body to embody the very instrument of intimacy with Hashem that stood in the inner sanctum of the Beis Hamikdash.

But I quickly took stock and realized it would seem strange to see the zeideh still seated, enjoying the nice chair he’d been temporarily honored with occupying. I quickly took my leave of it — but the suit and tie I had donned as sandek would draw no such strange looks, and so here I am so many hours later still so attired (in halachah, in fact, the entire day of the bris constitutes a Yom Tov for the sandek).

IT OUGHT NOT TO SURPRISE that the Mizbeiach is the fitting site for a bris milah to take place, and that a person can turn into a Mizbeiach. The Gemara in Gittin (90b) states that when a man divorces his first wife, even the Mizbeiach sheds tears over what he has done. Apparently, altars are more “human” than we imagine, with feelings and tears, too.

But we don’t need to wait to be chosen as a sandek to experience being a Mizbeiach. Why, we can even be a Kodesh Hakodoshim. The Nefesh HaChayim (1:4) writes how the Jew comprises within himself every part of every precinct of the Beis Hamikdash — with the heart at his very center as the Holy of Holies — and how each of his actions, and even his thoughts, contribute to the building and beautification — or the very opposite — of this internal edifice.

Bilvavi mishkan evneh… u’v’mishkan mizbeiach asim. It’s not just a song to be sung around the campfire, but the human reality. Having just taken leave of a Yom Tov revolving around the defiling of the Beis Hamikdash and its eventual restoration and purification, it’s sobering to contemplate that our own personal batei mikdash are under sustained assault like never before.

The heathen hordes of Antiochus were just a precursor to the perhaps more subtle, but nonetheless ongoing, invasion of our Jewish homes and hearts, bringing a flood of deeply non-Jewish values and views in its wake. But the question lingers: Do we have the strength and courage of our ancestors to place our faith in the Almighty and be the few against the many?  —



Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 889. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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