One would have expected the laws that follow the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Commandments, to be of great urgency and importance. Yet the two laws that follow are not only seemingly mundane and prosaic but greatly misplaced in this arena of high moments.
The Torah text states, “and if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it out of hewn stones; for by wielding your sword upon them, you have profaned them. Do not ascend my altar by steps, that your nakedness may be exposed upon it” (Exodus 20:22-23).
We have apparently moved from the pageantry of the moment of Revelation, with its attending thunder and lightning, to the apparently ordinary issues related to the construction of an altar. The prohibition against using a sword in preparing the stones of the altar and the need to use a ramp instead of stairs to alight should more logically appear in the last chapter of Sefer Shemot. That is, where the construction of the desert Tabernacle, the Mishkan, is properly mandated and detailed.
Homiletically, and by extension existentially, the Torah might very well be instructing us in a vital way, to prevent egregious behavior that could easily flow from a flawed comprehension of what the Torah demands of us. On the one hand, the embrace of the Torah at that Sinaitic moment and all similar affirmations by successive generations can easily be corrupted by misplaced ideals and extremist attitudes. The difference between stairs and a ramp is that one climbs faster on the former, but tires quickly and needs to stop and rest. Climbing a ramp, while slower, is less tedious and because it takes effort to stand still on an incline one is encouraged to keep moving. The climb to Torah in deed and creed, in observance and understanding, should be approached in a similar vein, namely as a graduated ascent that also allows for studied consideration and careful integration.
Furthermore, there is the concern and conviction that the only way for Torah to endure is through coercive means. We are therefore enjoined not to build an altar, which serves as the locus and focus from which we give of ourselves to God and community, with a sword, an obvious implement of war. One cannot use terror-like tactics and militant means to impart and impose the message of Judaism.
Instead we are expected to “walk in God’s ways”-“v’halachto bi-drachav.” This doctrine of “imitatio Dei,” according to the Rambam, means that just as God is “rachum v’chanun,” “merciful and gracious,” so must one be in the proper development of his/her religious character and spiritual personality. The events of late in Israel are a stark reminder of the possibilities for the Torah’s teachings and values to be tragically corrupted and misrepresented through “kefiah datit” or religious coercion.
The final lesson of the ramp of the altar is that of accessibility. The ramp as a requisite element of the Mizbeach’s construction can be seen to symbolize the need to bring all close to the Divine. Not only do ramps in the Mishkan of old and in our sanctuaries today send a welcome message to the physically frail and handicapped, but they convey, to one and all, that everyone matters, regardless of affiliation, health, or station in life. The earthly climb that we each make toward transcendence must be carefully considered and calibrated, measured and mediated, crafted and molded out of tools and tones of love and understanding.