When we are assembling a list, often the thing which is first or that which comes last is the most important. Those are the items which are most in our minds and that is why we position them there.
This week we read the end of a list. It started last week with the ark, and finished this week with the golden altar for the incense in the Mishkan. I think it is clear why everything which must be done for the Mishkan starts with the Ark of the Covenant. It is the resting place for the tablets and the Torah. In addition, the covering for the ark is the place where G-d’s presence is made manifest to Moshe. However, the presence of the Golden Altar at the end is troubling. It should have been last week alongside the Menorah and the Table which were also present inside the Tent of Meeting itself. Barring that, we might have expected to find it alongside the Bronze Altar which stood outside the tent and was used for most sacrifices. Why is it positioned all the way at the end, after not only all the various implements for the Temple but even after the description of what must be done to inaugurate Aharon and his sons as Kohanim?
The Golden Altar represents almost a capstone for the Mishkan. The point of the Mishkan is to form a seat for G-d’s revealed presence in the world. That is why it starts with the Ark of the Covenant. The Golden Altar forms a crucial part of that revealed presence, because, as the Torah tells us: “it is in the cloud (of incense) that I will be seen on the Kapporet”. The Golden Altar, used primarily for the burning of the incense and making the billowing clouds of sweet smelling smoke which filled the Mishkan every morning and evening, is the part of the Mishkan which allows us to actually perceive G-d’s presence which is resting there. While the Mishkan is complete without it, the purpose of the building is not realized without that one extra bit.
We often encounter moments like this in our lives. We feel like we’ve achieved a great deal but without that one extra thing, the rest can feel a little pointless. The lesson of the Mishkan and the Golden Altar is that we just all work to identify the small bits which we often leave to last, which are sometimes the most important.