“You shall not ascend My altar on steps, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it.” (Exodus 20:23)
The priests who were going to offer sacrifices on the Temple altar had to get to the top via a ramp. Why was a ramp preferred over stairs?
Much has been written on this topic – I’d like to share a thought based upon something I heard from my teacher, Rav Aharon Kahn, shlita.
Ascending Hahem’s altar can be a general expression for the spiritual pursuit. The difference between stairs and a ramp is that it is very hard to stand in place on a ramp. When you’re going up stairs, you can easily stop at any time while going up.
Spiritual growth requires constant work. You can’t really take a vacation. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, used to say that a person is like a bird – if you stop flapping your wings you’ll fall.
The Torah commands us not to set up for ourselves a “matzevah” – a pillar or monument (Deuteronomy 16:22). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein noted that this word is from the root meaning of to stand (see Deut. 29:9). Rav Moshe says that the Torah is teaching us not to be static in life, never just to stand in place. It is only after a person dies that a matzevah is set in place over their grave.
Angels have one leg without joints (regel yeshara, Ezekiel 1:7) – they are programmed to serve God and are spiritually static. The prophet Zechariah (3:7) refers to angels as ‘omdim’- those who stand. They don’t grow spiritually. But humans are referred to as those who stride because our lives are to be ones of constant striving to perfect our character traits and grow in our closeness to Hashem.