THE SWEET SMELL OF…
Rabbi David Walk
When I was a kid there was a book I liked a lot called The Time Tunnel. It was a children's adventure story, which was about a few children who, while wandering around an old foundry in London, found a portal to Paris during the French Revolution, two centuries earlier. The first time they emerged from the tunnel they were accosted by the odors. Everything stunk, especially the food. I found this a fascinating idea that our sense which would be most challenged by the past would be our sense of smell. This brings me to the introduction this week of the ketoret, the amazing incense which was offered upon the small golden altar in the Mishkan and later in the Holy Temple. We don't often think about the practical ramifications of many ancient practices, but the ketoret must have served as a wonderful deodorizer for the Temple, and Maimonides teaches us this idea explicitly. After all there were many animals slaughtered there, and much of the year is very warm, without the benefits of refrigeration. However, what makes the ketoret so important was its spiritual impact and message, which, unlike the pragmatic considerations, continues across the ages.
Clearly there has been a long interest in this incense. The Talmud gives a remarkably detailed description of its ingredients and its manufacture. It's almost like attending Professor Snape's advanced potions class at Hogwart's. Its charm is enhanced by the fact that we read about these offerings every Shabbat, and in Sephardic synagogues everyday. Immediately after we sing Ein K'Elokeinu, we recite the eleven spices which made up the Temple incense. A couple of them are pretty commonplace like cinnamon and saffron, but many are truly exotic like onycha, galbanum and spikenard (Who makes up these names?). One of them was quite magical, namely the miraculous smoke-raising herb, which made the column of smoke rise heavenward unaffected by wind and weather. However, the mystery surrounding this practice is enhanced by two factors. One is mentioned right there in the davening, that if one of the ingredients is left out the cohen is liable to the death penalty. The other enigma enhancing idea is that the offering cohen had to be alone in the sanctuary while he burnt this concoction. This is in stark opposition to the menorah, which was prepared and lit with others around. It seems that the menorah represents the enlightening aspects of Judaism while the ketoret represents the mysterious and secret characteristics of our religion.
The Netivot Shalom by the Slonimer Rebbe (R. Shalom Noach Barzofski, 1911-2000) has a fascinating presentation about the ketoret. The Rebbe explains that in truth the entire essence of humans who are born to flesh and blood is antithetical to love of and connection to God, and it doesn't seem plausible that one could achieve this lofty level. Therefore, the Zohar describes how God gave us Torah and the 613 mitzvot to aid us in this quest for d'veykut, connection to God. The Ramchal (R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 1707-1746) wrote that this enterprise includes a desire for this connection and then trying intensely to accomplish it. At that point God supports our attempt, and grants the petitioner the desired closeness as a gift. Because we can't actually achieve this state on our own.
The Slonimer then goes on to elucidate how the various parts of the Mishkan represent the range of spiritual levels in the world. Initially, we have the outer, bronze altar upon which the preponderance of offerings are brought. This stage represents this world of action, and demonstrates our belief that we can sanctify the mundane items around us in this otherwise profane world. The highest possible state is embodied in the Holy of Holies. This mysterious corner of our realm symbolizes the most distant holy recesses of God's territories. It is transcendent and rarely reached by flesh and blood. The human most dedicated to holiness only enters it once a year. The rest of us barely imagine its otherness. It implies a world so ethereal that solid matter can't be transported there. It's the domain of spiritual beings like the Cherubs, who hover above the Ark. Since the Cohen Gadol goes there annually, we must be saying that as otherly as it is, humanity can attain it. How? How do we bridge the chasm between raising up the stuff of this world to a higher plane on the bronze altar, to actually being transported to that other spiritual reality of the Holy of Holies? Well, the outer room of the Temple building, called the Holy, is the road map.
This chamber contains three items: the table for the shew bread, the menorah and the golden altar for the ketoret. The bread, which is eaten by the Cohanim serving in the Temple every Shabbat, signifies that God provides for the physical needs of this world. We must emulate that behavior by helping each other get by with our help and kindness. The menorah is the next step higher, and epitomizes our intellectual attempts to comprehend God. We do this through Torah study. This is the vehicle for extending the light of Torah from the Ark to the minds of Jews, and then to the world at large.
But the highest of them all is the ketoret on the golden altar. This rising column of fragrant smoke informs us that physical stuff can sublime to ethereal levels. It is the mysterious transporter podium which hints to us that we can beam to higher, almost unimaginable levels.
It's the sight of the swirling smoke and the fragrant aroma of the burning concoction which lead the observer to higher levels. So, these fragrant spices and balms bring the sweet smell of spirituality, and remind us that greater sanctity is within our grasp when we try.
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