I'M SO INCENSED
Rabbi David Walk
Back in the day (1972), I was a dorm counsellor at America's largest institution of higher education under Jewish auspices (YU). Before the academic year began, we had a meeting of all the RA's (as we later came to be called). The get together was attended by the head of the dorms, the college doctor and a representative of New York's Finest. I was surprised to see a policeman at our gathering. But all quickly became clear, or, better yet, smoky. The officer prepared a presentation that looked a lot like a lab set up. He started burning oregano. The room filled with a pungent aroma, which I immediately recognized. I started laughing, but I was the only one in the place who did. I was the only YU employee who went to public school. No one else recognized the fragrance of pot, weed, marijuana. It was embarrassing. However, the cop came to my rescue and said how important it was to recognize the smell. Then he informed us to also be on the lookout for rooms that burned incense with regularity, because the most common purpose for incense in dormitories is to cover drug use. I quickly lost the policeman's respect by asking if the guys, perhaps, just had a smelly room. He responded, 'Not in the real world!'
Anyway, incense has lost its former lofty position in society. The word comes from the Latin INCENDERE, which means 'burn', like 'incendiary device'. In pre-modern times incense was important in religious services, amongst Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and us. This week's introduces the small golden altar for incense use in our and later temples. There are a number of questions which jump out of the text which must be dealt with.
The most essential issue is the name of this particular article of furniture. It's called MIZBEACH HAZAHAV or the golden altar. However, the word MIZBEACH comes from the word ZEVACH, as in ZEVACH Pesach ( 12:27). This term means the sacrifice, which is meat. The tractate called in our Talmud is about the animal offerings. When we discuss an offering from non-meat sources, we call it a MINCHA. So, shouldn't we call this small, pareve altar something else?
Reb Baruch Halevi Epstein (Torah Temima,1860-1941) was concerned with this issue. He quotes the Talmud that the word MIZBEACH is made up of the letters that hint to the fact that this structure diverts punishment (MEZEACH), provides sustenance (MAZON), endears us (MECHAVEV), and atones (MECHAPER, 10b). Epstein avers that this clever derivation of the word was intended to resolve the seeming misnomer of the incense altar. The term MIZBEACH refers to more than a place for roasting meat; it refers to the great benefits derived from its service in the Holy Temple.
But there's another, perhaps thornier, problem. Why is the incense altar described here? All the other furnishings of the were described last week. The Torah has spent the last four chapters describing the structure itself and the priestly garments. What purpose is served by separating this item from the Menorah, the Shulchan, the Aron and the great copper altar?
There are many commentaries who deal with this obvious problem. There are a group who emphasize that the golden altar is left for last because it's less important than the other items. There are those ( ) that believe that the incense could be brought without it. Then there are those who say that it was left for last because it's more important than all the other items. Like the Ibn Ezra. BTW this idea of ACHRON CHAVIV (the last is most beloved) I always felt was a face-saving ploy for the kid who is picked last, but that's just me.
I'd like to follow the thinking of the (Reb Ephraim , 1550-1619). He begins by explaining the different purpose of the large, outer altar of copper and the smaller, inner altar of gold. The outer one, where animal offerings are brought is to atone for the physical aspect of one's sin. Psychologically we feel that this animal is a substitute for ourselves. That's why, he explains, the height of the upper portion of the altar is three AMOT or a little over a meter and a half, 5 foot 6, about an average human being.
While the inner, golden MIZBEACH atones for the Divine spark within us all. The rising smoke of the incense represents the ethereal nature of our souls yearning to rise heavenward. That's the essence of the fragrant cloud rising above the small altar Every morning we commemorate the reawakening of our soul in this realm, and every evening we contemplate the soul's eventual return to its rightful place on high.
But shouldn't that require the description of this altar to be situated in the text right next to the description of its larger counterpart? Well, maybe but that's not where goes with his thought. He explains that all the furnishings of the and, indeed, the structure itself is all a fulfillment of the lofty concept introduced last week: Make for Me a sanctuary (MIKDASH), and I will dwell in your midst (25:7). All of this work is to give us a sense that we are inviting God into our realm. Not so this little golden fixture.
The MIZBEACH HAZAHAV reminds us that our greatest desire is to ascend to the lofty heights where our true essence (NESHAMA) belongs. That purpose requires a separation from the other items.
The nation still pines for the opportunity to fulfill all these precepts in this section of . But in the meantime, we do our best to achieve the spiritual aims of these missing physical structures. In this endeavor the MIZBEACH HAZAHAV is critical. As we invite God to accompany us in this world, a little piece of us, deep down inside, intuits a celestial connection. It wants to soar.