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Rambam - Sefer HaMitzvos
As Divided for The Daily Learning Schedule

Negative Mitzvot 79, 80

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Negative Mitzvah 79: It is forbidden to build the altar with stones that have been touched by iron or any other metal
Exodus 20:22 "You shall not build it of hewn stones"

This Negative Mitzvah describes the building of the altar on which sacrifices are offered.

The Hebrew word for sacrifice is "Korban", which comes from the word "Kerav", which means "to come close."

By presenting a sacrifice, a Jew becomes closer to HaShem, (see Introduction to Positive Mitzvah 39).

The altar on which sacrifices were offered was made out of stone.

The Torah forbids us to build the altar with any stone that was cut with a blade. An iron or metal blade is also a tool of warfare, used to make swords and knives and other instruments of death.

The Torah does not want the altar to be touched by such materials, because they represent the exact opposite of sacrifices which bring us close to HaShem and thus, extend our lives. Therefore, we must not build the altar with stone that has been cut with a blade.

Negative Mitzvah 80: It is forbidden to use steps to climb up to the altar
Exodus 20:23 "Neither shall you go up by steps to My altar"

The altar on which the sacrifices were brought was very high and there was a specific way for the priests to get to the top.

HaShem wants the service in the Beit HaMikdash to be refined and modest. The slightest detail is taken into consideration - even how a priest gets to the top of the altar!

Instead of steps, which require lifting one's feet high off the ground, we are commanded to build a ramp leading up to the altar.

On the ramp, the priest can take small strides in a dignified manner, as befitting one who serves in the Beit HaMikdash.

An ancient Midrash (with embellishment):

Adam trudged past the gates of Eden, his head low, his feet heavy with remorse and pain. Then he stopped. A thought had struck him. He spun around, looked up and exclaimed, "Wait a minute! You had this all planned! You put that fruit there knowing I would eat from it! This is all a plot! "And I can prove it: In your Torah which You composed before the world was created, You wrote, "This is what you should do with a man when he dies..." "So You had planned death should be in the world! You only wanted it should enter on my account!"

The Midrash does not record any retort to Adam's cry. Only silence. G-d saw the soul of Man that it was very great and He asked, "How will all this greatness be realized?" And so, he allowed Man free choice -- to choose his own victories or to make his own blunders.

Without failure, Man will never truly reach into the depths of his soul. Only once he has failed, can he return and reach higher and higher without end. Beyond Eden.

From: Bringing Heaven Down to Earth by Tzvi Freeman -

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