Parashat Yitro, the parasha of the Ten Commandments, concludes with a prohibition: (20:23)’You shall not ascend My Altar on steps, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it.’
Rashi brings the Mechilta:’When you make a ramp for the Altar, do not make it with steps, so that your nakedness shall not be exposed - because due to the steps you must widen your strides. Although it would not be an actual exposure of nakedness - for it is written (28:42):’And make for them pants’ - nevertheless, widening the strides is close to exposing the nakedness, and you behave towards them (the stones ) in a humiliating manner.
‘Now these matters are a kal vechomer conclusion, that if concerning these stones which have no intelligence to object to their humiliation, the Torah said that because they are necessary, you shall not behave toward them in a humiliating manner, your friend - who is created in the likeness of your Creator - and who does object to being humiliated, how much more‘ must you be careful not to embarrass him!
The Chinuch brings this prohibition as a Mitzvah (Number 41), commenting that amongst its roots, is to instill in our souls awe of the place and of its importance.
‘All know that the stones do not ‘resent’ the humiliation - of those who stride on them in a coarse manner - as they neither see or hear. But the objective is to illustrate to our hearts awe of the place and its importance, because through acts, the heart is affected.’
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz adds:’As Rashi brings, the reason for the prohibition of taking coarse strides on the Altar, is the issue of nakedness; though it clearly is not revealing nakedness, since the Kohanim are commanded to be dressed in pants; nevertheless taking big strides conjures up an image of nakedness, and to do so is therefore likened to behaving towards the stones in a disrespectful way.
‘The underlying reason for the prohibition, is that the sanctity of the Altar, obligates a higher standard of respect than other parts of the Sanctuary - where in fact there is no prohibition on taking big strides - and because of the ‘likeness’ between taking big strides and actual display of nakedness, doing so is disrespectful to the sanctity of the holy place.’
The Chatam Sofer notes, as does Rashi, the juxtaposition of this Mitzvah and the opening words of the next Parasha - ‘And these are the mishpatim’’ - , and comments:’Just as Rashi brings the kal vachomer from the stones - which can neither see or hear - the Torah instructs us to behave respectfully toward them, how much more to our fellow man , who is created in the Divine Image.
‘Therefore, do not ascend the steps with broad strides - juxtaposed with -‘and these are the ordinances that you shall place before them’, the message of the ordinances of these stones of the Altar, is what you should put before ‘them’: that they should honor one another, and learn kal vachomer from the stones, the right way to behave to one another.’
Rav Elya Lopian also brings the commentary of Rashi, and notes the words he uses:’.because they - the stones - are necessary’, therefore do not disrespect them, and asks rhetorically:’But this is true of every place that a person must step on in his daily activities, yet why is there no prohibition in these cases?
‘The answer is obvious: the reason is that the necessity for the stones is to offer up the sacrifices, and the ramp is a sacred place.
‘Further, who are we talking about? The Kohen, dressed in his priestly clothes, in the course of his holy avodah.
‘The greater the sanctity of the place, the greater the need to distance from any nakedness or signs of it, so that even the slight allusion of widening strides, is deemed improper, as not paying proper respect to the sanctity of the ramp, as if revealing nakedness on it.
‘From here, it is a very short step to the kal vechomer of the honor of your fellow man, who is created in the Divine Image.
‘Here you might ask: what need is there for this kal vachomer, what can we learn from the sacred stones of the Altar about a simple man?
‘This is in fact what we are saying:’if to these sacred stones, which have no mind to feel humiliation, do not behave disrespectfully, do not take big strides, how much more care must be taken with man who is ‘holy of holies’, because he has been created in the Divine Image; do not show the slightest disrespect , even if only like taking big strides on the ramp, which is, in truth, only ‘likened’ to nakedness.
‘From the above, we also learn about disrespecting food, because it too was created for the needs of man - and, further, our Sages teach that our tables are like altars, and the meals we eat on them, are likened to sacrificial offerings.
‘The importance of this can be better understood when we reflect on the brachot we make on our food, acknowledging that our food is by the grace of Hashem.
Rav Yosef Salant opens his commentary with a basic question:’Why do we bring a kal vachomer from the stones of the altar, which have no mind, to man?
‘Is not the reason that the Torah warns about the altar, due to the sanctity of the place and reverence of the shechina? If so, what relevance is there to learn a kal vechomer from the altar , to man, that he should not act disrespectfully?
‘The answer is that our Sages teach that the respect due to the ramp of the altar is not solely because of the sanctity of the altar.
‘The main reason for the Torah’s concern with respect for the altar - more than for the other parts of the Sanctuary - was because of its power to lengthen the years of man, and to cause peace between man and his Maker, by means of the offerings brought on it.
‘Therefore, the kal vachomer is indeed in place, that the altar stones which have no mind to feel disrespect, but who were made for the benefit of man, to enable him to receive atonement, to grant him years, as they are for the utility of man, you are not to disrespect them, how much more so man himself, who is in the image of the Creator, and feels disrespect!
‘Let us reflect: we are talking of the holy Kohanim, who are in the course of their avodah, yet the Torah sees the need to warn them to act respectfully.
‘We can learn from this about man, that even if he is engaged in a Mitzvah or worthwhile matter, how careful he must be not to act disrespectfully towards others.’
The hassidic master, the Noam Elimelech proffers a different homiletic understanding of our matter:’In man’s aspirations to ascend in his avodat hashem, he should not seek to ascend in giant leaps - במעלות - but to do so gradually, step by step, as otherwise he is likely to ‘reveal his nakedness’: his actual level, until he is sure that it reflects his true level as a servant of Hashem.’
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin also adduces a lesson as to man’s avodat Hashem, from our injunction, commenting:’There is an allusion in it, that the person bringing his olah offering on the altar, as an atonement, לא יעלה במעלות: should not say to himself, that, true I transgressed, but my מעלות: virtues, and the mitzvot I have performed, surely atone for the transgression.
‘Should he do so, the accusers Above will come and ‘reveal his nakedness’, and recount other transgressions that he has committed.
‘Therefore, he should not rely on prior merits, but seek atonement for his present transgression, and then, his earlier transgressions will also not be counted.’
In a similar vein, let us internalize a parting insight from Rav Shimon Sofer:’Our Sages teach of the importance of עיון תפילה: devotion in our prayers.,
‘The Tosafot expound this to allude to one who thinks that he merits that his prayers should be accepted because of his good deeds; in fact, his prayer should be that Hashem in His mercy, should hear his plea - not that it should ‘ascend’ - תעלה במעלות - because of his מעלות - his merits.
‘Should man not heed this mussar, he is likely to ‘reveal his nakedness’, and his faults revealed to all.’
לרפואת נועם עליזה בת זהבה רבקה ונחום אלימלך רפאל בן זהבה רבקה, בתוך שאר חולי עמנו.