Good sense and incense – Parshat Tetzaveh
“…make an altar for the burning incense” (Shemot 30:1)
Think for a moment how powerful the sense of smell is, how fragrance penetrates boundaries and how burning incense creates a cloud-like aura. Now consider why the incense altar appears to be out of place. Contextually, the incense altar belongs in Parshat Terumah which describes all of the furniture for the Tabernacle. Instead, it appears only at the end of Parshat Tetzaveh, following the list of the Kohen Gadol’s ceremonial clothing.
Based on a clever word play, the Holy Zohar teaches that the word ketoret –– incense — is קטירה דכולא. “A connector of everything.” [In Aramaic the Hebrew letter “tet” of ketoret, is exchanged with the letter “shin,” rending the word incense, “ketira,” to mean “keshira,” connection.] The powerful aroma and smoke filled fragrance of the ketoret obscures the boundaries between the inner, holy sanctuary where the altar is located, and the outer, public domain where the people of Israel stood. For those outside, the powerful/sweet scent penetrates past the boundaries and transports them to the inside. In fact, it blurs the distinctions between inside and outside altogether. Symbolically this means that in truth, there really isn’t any difference between the holy and the mundane. Reality is actually one interconnected whole. In our spiritual yearning, we may want to touch, smell and apprehend this reality immediately, but we mustn’t rush and try to get there too fast.
According to Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Ishbitz, this is why the incense altar is listed only at the end of Parshat Tetzaveh. It comes only after a painstaking effort to construct, to the minutest detail, all of the other the vessels of the Tabernacle and fashion the protective clothing of the Kohen Gadol. What this means for us is that spiritual-ethical work is in the details; it is all about process, careful self-scrutiny, and it can only be done gradually, step by step without skipping stages or forcing things.
The teachings of the Hasidic masters are subtle and here in Israel, we are not living in subtle times. The horrific cold-blooded murder of two brothers, innocently driving to learn Torah, pierces every human heart.
But we also saw the grotesque expression of anger and self-righteous anarchism in the guise of religious fervor. There is no connection to God, divinity, or any worthy values, without restraint, self-scrutiny, and the painstaking, cautious process which our tradition is known to promote. The teachings of the Hasidic masters are subtle and we are living in times that are not subtle. Nevertheless, we need to be on the side of those who refuse to forfeit our values and continue to affirm the complex, nuanced path to hidden truths.
If we are fortunate, after arduous and sincere effort, we may merit to be transported by the fragrance of the ketoret, the incense-connector, and experience, if only momentarily, the interconnectedness of all reality.