Tetzaveh 5769 – Ascent through a Scent

by Rebbetzin Malkah

You fill up my senses
Like a night in the forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert
Like a sleepy blue ocean
You fill up my senses
Come fill me again...

Lyrics by John Denver

There are several ways that one can feel welcome or cozy inside one's own dwelling.  Perhaps it is the smell of a lovingly prepared meal, or a fragrant dessert or candle filling the air with sweetness.  Or maybe, it is that fire in the living room giving off the faint scent of burning wood, beckoning us to draw near and soak in the familiar welcoming smells of relaxation and comfort.  Even the Havdalah spices take us to a place within the soul that cannot be reached in any other fashion.  When the Golden Mizbeach (the Incense Altar) was constructed, its placement and purpose were crucial.  Upon entering the Holy Place, the first element encountered would be the incense altar.  This pleasing aroma of incense was not only present to welcome the King and show honor, but its purpose was also to place the Kohanim in an elevated state of mind for proper service.  Only within the Holy Place would they be surrounded with this very unique scent, filling the morning and evening air.  This pleasing aroma went far beyond a commandment however:  it would be the very vehicle to take the soul to the various levels of repentance, shuvah and salvation.

The Sweet Smell of Righteousness

On a physical level, the air or the ambience in a Jewish home is affected by our own incense: the kind deeds, the prayer, words of encouragement, support and love.  As guests or family members enter the boundaries of the home, they either perceive an air that immediately is welcoming and orderly, or filled with chaos and shabby relationships.  Just as the incense had the power outside the Mishkan to quench the fire of a divinely afflicted plague, so too do we have the ability to bring about a peaceful and meaningful existence within our homes by what we "fill the air" with each day.  Our Sages taught that the righteous and their deeds are compared to pleasant smelling spices (Megillah 13a).

The Talmud states that the sense of Mashiach is the sense of smell:

"And he shall smell in the awe of G-d"--"he shall judge by smell" (rather than by sight or hearing). Isaiah 11:3; Sanhedrin 93b

By his sense of smell (his Ruach Hakodesh, "holy spirit"), the Mashiach will know how to connect each Jewish soul to its Divine root, and thereby identify its tribe (branch) in Israel.  He will sense our righteousness by our deeds; our very soul will emit a scent as beautiful as the incense of the Mishkan....indeed, our neshama is like an incense altar.

So what purpose, beyond a pleasing aroma in the Holy Place, does the Incense Altar serve?  This tie between smell, the Incense Altar, and the elevation of our soul is powerful.  Understanding the secret property of the smoke that causes our Divine Creator to rejoice upon smelling it is just as important as the eleven components that go into making the incense. The act of mixing eleven spices and placing them in a vessel set upon coals provides beautiful symbolism for us. On the outside, it appears as just another commandment.  But wrapped within, the meaning is deep and penetrates our very being and connects us on a spiritual level - just as smell permeates our core.

The smoke that the burning incense creates represents the sweet smell of repentance, and the incense being offered as a sacrifice represents the key to that salvation: our Mashiach himself.  The incense, combined with the coals, produces the smoke or the sweet smell that infuses the area. In other words, Mashiach, combined with a repentant heart, produces the sweet smell of repentance which is pleasing to our Creator. In Isaiah, we read of the coming together of a coal and the offering (sweet smelling heart and a willing sacrifice):

"Then I said, 'Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the L-rd of hosts.' Then one of the seraphim flew to me, with a burning coal in his hand which he had taken from the altar with tongs. And he touched my mouth with it and said, 'Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven.'".  Isaiah 6:1-7

Indeed, this is the same equation that we see with the Kohen Hagadol entering the Holy of Holies:  in order to be forgiven and to rise to a new level in Hashem, there had to be a transformation, the change of heart, a change in intent, and finally the sweet smelling aroma would be released.  Nothing is as powerful, nothing is as far reaching as this.

Forbidden Combination

What is unique to this portion is the commandment to not bring any alien incense or forbidden incense.  This implies that the precise combination was crucial to the performance of the mitzvah of the incense offering.  The eleven spices, plus the incense pan/vessel and the altar itself represent a perfect number:  thirteen.  When we contemplate this number, it is reminiscent of the thirteen attributes of Hashem.  This is something that in all matters of our walk, we hope to not only remember but emulate.  We seek completion and holiness in all ways.  Anything else is a botched attempt at seeking the Divine.

What is interesting about this parasha is that it links to the next parasha with two objects juxtaposed:  the Golden Mizbeach and the heretical Golden Calf. Keep in mind, while this account appears in the next portion, many Sages say that it no doubt happened before the giving of the blueprint of the Mishkan. How then, do we reconcile the place in the text where it is given to us? Is there any correlation?

The Sages indicate that Hashem always provides an antidote or a cure before a problem arises. The Incense Altar is described before the Parasha Ki Tisa for good reason:  a loving parent always has a first aid kit in the home ready before a family member gets hurt.   In this week's parasha, we encounter in the last section of the parasha the commandment to build the Incense Altar, or the Mizbeach HaKetoret / Mizbeach HaZahav. The parasha following this week's portion deals with the heinous episode of the Golden Calf.  What is the similarity?  Consider this:  both the Incense Altar and the Golden Calf have horns, are gold, and represent a great connection to the desire to worship G-d.  What is different?  One is an altar of sanctity, of an offering, a sacrifice.  The other represents a model of excess, vanity and idolatry.

The Golden Calf primarily, as seen in other cultures, represents the goddess cultures.  It is those of the mother, the nurturer, seen in Inanna, Hathor, Sekhmet, Isis, those whose heads were adorned with horns - light, knowledge, wisdom, and also depicted "El", a Canaanite god who was represented as a bull. Any coincidence they built this?  Not a chance.  But, the Golden Calf also stood for all of the icons of the more ancient cultures, those who gave their power to anything but the real G-d.  Can we understand why Hashem was so angry, so much so that he had no desire to continue with those who had worshipped such an object?  To Him, this was an act of faithlessness, a blatant disregard and insult for what He had done for them at the Sea of Reeds and in Mitzrayim itself through the plagues. The point Hashem was trying to impart to Bnei Yisrael was that He was light, knowledge, wisdom and the true G-d.  No one else held this rank.

As we see from Parasha Tetzaveh, the Golden Mizbeach represented an object that with horns, served not to be paraded but used in the service of bringing us closer to Hashem.  And that is the crucial difference:  it is the objects of the Mishkan, when utilized in a holy way, that bring us closer to our Creator through inner transformation.  They are not outwardly lauded.  Like our souls, they are inside and are used in modest manners to achieve holiness.  From the coal brought from the altar of offering, to the incense that was burned, the result was a sweet smell of repentance and true devotion.  This is in stark contrast to that which was concocted from the gold of our ears, or that of ourselves that was selfishly inclined - thus the Golden Calf.  This not only stank of idolatry, but was so abhorrent to Hashem that the only solution Hashem gave initially was to blot out the smell - the people who created it.

Incense of Today

How do we prevent ourselves from parading our own "golden calves", or lauding our own melted-down tchotchkes today?  What are our Golden Mizbeachs today?  Perhaps it is important to return and remember that it is through "smell" that our righteousness will be determined. If we hone ourselves to be driven with diligence and holiness in our everyday actions in a humble manner, when we recall that our gemilut chasidim (acts of kindness) are that which will delicately scent us with the smell of righteousness, then we will not be swayed in temporary or cheap ways of appearing important or close to our Creator.  As the Incense Altar was humbly positioned in the Holy Place, so too do we function in a place close to the Holy of Holies.  Our behavior should be one of holy contemplation and intent.  As we draw closer to the place where Hashem resides within us, we will honestly understand that it is through the sometimes uncomfortable process of "coals" that we must burn away that which is dross in our lives in order to release an aroma of change, repentance and bring about true salvation.  May we willingly place all of our middot, our character traits, all that we are, along with a repentant heart into that incense vessel with our Mashiach Yeshua - who is our incense offering - and allow the energy of Hashem to burn away and release a fragrance that is not only uplifting but truly Divine...

Shabbat Shalom...

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