The Flame on the Altar

I’ve often been fascinated with undersized and oversized letters in the Torah and the various interpretations ascribed to them. Many of them have readily available explanations, like the oversized “ayin” and “daled” in the Shema being so because each of us is an “ayd,” or witness, to the oneness of G-d. One that continues to interest me is the undersized “mem” in the word “mokdah” at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion.

The word mokdah refers to “altar-hearth,” the place on the altar where the olah sacrifice is burned. What significance could there possibly be in the mem being small? The Kotzker Rebbe writes a fascinating interpretation in his work Iturei Torah. He writes that “the Altar symbolizes man’s service of G-d. Just as the flame always seeks to rise, likewise the hope of all prayer is to ascend to the highest places. However, fire also symbolizes pride and arrogance, the character traits that desire to rise and aggrandize themselves over others. The essence of prayer is humility. When we understand how small we are, we have a chance of relating to how great G-d is, since true prayer and love of Torah is hidden in the heart, unrevealed to world, not trumpeted to all with extravagant gestures and posing. Just like that the little mem, the elevation of the altar of the heart is in proportion to its humility.

It’s a fascinating idea-the purpose of prayer is humility, recognizing how little we are in the greater scheme of things and connecting to our Creator. In a similar vein, I appreciate how in last week’s portion the letter “aleph” in the word VaYikra is smaller, emphasizing Moses’ humility when G-d called to him. Through our daily prayer we strive to be like Moses, recognizing how we are just a cog in a much larger picture, greater than we could ever fathom.

It can be so difficult to recognize our limitations. At times we feel boundless, like nothing in the world could possibly stop us. At other times we feel downcast, brought down by a tragedy or personal difficulties. The goal of prayer is to constantly center us, making us lower our self-image and recognize that we are merely a messenger sent out by G-d to do good in the world.

I was speaking in February with my grandmother z”l about struggles with happiness and how the goal in life is to be happy. She said no-the goal in fact is graciousness. This made me recoil as I often think of grace as a Christian concept, even though the word חן, or חנון, means grace in Hebrew. My grandmother was saying how gracious we must be for all that we have and that we need to count our blessings. Prayer is an opportunity to do that, to give back to G-d for all the good things we have been given in life.

This lesson comes to mind especially as we are on the eve of the holiday of Passover. Before Passover we strive to rid ourselves of Hametz, of leavened products. The rabbis teach this does not only mean grains but also any aspects of our character which have become “puffed up” or haughty. We need to take this opportunity to lower ourselves back to ground level, to recognize that the wealth, prestige or fame we have gained will leave us when we pass from this world. Prayer has the opportunity to do precisely that, to anchor us back to being modest and humble and recognizing that we are all servants of G-d.

As we approach Passover, let us strive to rid ourselves and our homes from Hametz, any of the puffed-up haughtiness that we may be feeling. In so doing, may we lower ourselves like the mem in “mokdah” to being a servant of G-d, one who recognizes his/her mission is to bring godliness to others and to strengthen our community. May we utilize our Musaf prayer to pray for the strength to engage in this holy endeavor.

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