Judaism: Transcending Ourselves
The final aliyah of Parshas Tetzaveh features the Mizbach Hazahav - the Golden Altar - which was located in the Kodesh (the Holies) and was used twice daily for offering Ketores (the incense sacrifice).
Aside from the fact that the Mizbach Hazahav was off-limits to anyone but Kohanim, as only Kohanim could enter the Kodesh, the Torah presents several other restrictions regarding the Mizbach Hazahav: "You shall not offer upon it any foreign incense (i.e. incense brought as an additional, voluntary offering - v. Rashi, based on Gemara) , nor an Olah (animal offering) nor a Minchah (flour offering), nor may wine libation sacrifice be offered upon it." (Shemos 30:9)
These restrictions pertaining to the Mizbach Hazahav stand in stark contrast to the Mizbach Hanechoshet (the Bronze Altar), which was used for many types of voluntary offerings, and upon which animal, flour and wine sacrifices were regularly brought.
It is also to be noted that whereas the materials offered on the Mizbach Hanechoshet were all foodstuffs, the material offered on the Mizbach Hazahav, incense, is not a food, and in fact, it has no physical manifestation when offered; it is consumed and and merely emits ethereal smoke.
What is the conceptual difference between the the two altars, reflected by their very different functions and regulations?
The Mizbach Hanechoshet represents Man reaching out toward Hashem. All sorts of korbonot (offerings) were brought on the Mizbach Hanechoshet, reflective of Man's varied situations and needs; similarly, voluntary korbonot brought upon the Mizbach Hanechoshet embody Man's voluntary and often spontaneous desire to come close to the Divine. The Mizbach Hanechoshet was an all-purpose altar, available to anyone to approach Hashem through sacrifice. So too, since Man is a physical being and his existence is in the material world, are the offerings brought on the Mizbach Hanechoshet physical, earthy foodstuffs.
In contrast, the Mizbach Hazahav represents Man's submission to Hashem. This is the altar upon which Man serves Hashem on His terms only and is extremely limited: only Kohanim have access, only a very restricted class of offerings is licensed, and, unlike many of the korbonot brought on the Mizbach Hanechoshet, which were consumed by Man, Man has no physical benefit from the Avodah (sacrificial service) of the Mizbach Hazahav. Nothing reflective of Man's physical, earthy existence may be present. The emphasis here is total restriction, reflective of pure submission to the Divine.
This vision of the Mizbach Hazahav explains why the Mizbach Hazahav is featured at the end of Parshas Tetzaveh, following the presentation of the Bigdei Kehunah (Priestly Vestments) and the sanctification of the Kohanim, rather than along with the rest of the keilim (articles) of the Mishkan in Parshas Terumah - for the Mizbach Hazahav represents submission to Hashem, as does the role of the Kohanim. The Mizbach Hazahav, presented after the entire preparatory treatment of the Kohanim, manifests the pinnacle of submission to the Divine, aptly serving as the conclusion of the Torah text that sets forth the Kohanim's mandate.
There are two notable exceptions to the rule that no animal sacrifice may occur on the Mizbach Hazahav: "And Aharon shall atone on its corners once annually with the blood of the Korban Chattat (Sin Offering) of Yom Kippur; one time per year shall he atone on it for your generations. It is holy of holies to Hashem." (Shemos 30:10) Likewise, the blood of the special Chattat offering brought by the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) who ruled erroneously about cases with certain strictures and then acted upon such a ruling must be applied to the corners of the Mizbach Hazahav. (Vayikra 4:7)
What do these two exceptions represent?
The korbonot which comprise these exceptions are offerings brought on behalf of Kohanim to atone for the inadvertent commission of sin. Despite the engagement of Kohanim in Avodah and their frequent presence in the Beis Hamikdash (the Temple), they are human and are prone to sin as are the best of us.
The message here is that Man, despite his flaws that are a result of the human condition, can nonetheless draw extremely near to Hashem and encounter Him in the Kodesh, as the blood of his Korban Chattat is applied to the Mizbach Hazahav, despite its extreme restrictions. The Mizbach Hazahav informs Man that he can come close to Hashem in a way that he otherwise would not have imagined, so long as his Avodah is geared toward subservience to Hashem and not service of self. He who seeks to approach Hashem at the Mizbach Hanechoshet with sincerity and humility, with the goal being fulfillment of the Divine Will, will be elevated and sanctified such that he is welcomed by Hashem as if he has offered his korban in the Kodesh, despite his innate human limitations and flaws.
This is the symbolism of the Sin Offerings whose blood is applied to the Mizbach Hazahav, where imperfect, sinful Man can be elevated to the ethereal realm and can identify with the Holy, as he leaves behind his earthy qualities and transforms into a new, specially-elevated being that stands in the Kodesh of Hashem.