September 21, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Tetzaveh

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

“When Aaron kindles the lights in the afternoon, he shall make it go up in smoke, continual incense before the Lord for your generations.” –Exodus 25:2

Nina Litvak

When Aaron lights incense on the golden altar, it creates a fragrant aroma and a cloud of smoke that resembles the clouds of the divine presence. This suggests that a pleasing smell is part of the experience of being near to God. Smell has a unique holiness because it’s the only sense that did not participate in the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge.

Despite its connection to holiness, smell is the sense we humans value least. If you had to sacrifice one sense, it probably would be smell. Yet our sages teach that smell is the most heavenly sense, because it reaches us through the nose, the organ through which the soul enters and leaves the body. The Talmud calls the pleasure of smell one that benefits the soul, not the body.

When Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelite caravan, it didn’t have the usual foul smell but instead contained sweet-smelling spices. Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz said that the spices in the caravan were a message to Joseph that God was with him. The fragrant odor was a sign of God’s presence, and Joseph understood the message and was strengthened.

Just as God chose the most humble man to lead us, and the most humble mountain on which to reveal himself to us, he chose the most humble sense to connect himself to us. Every time we smell a fragrant aroma, we can understand it, as Joseph did, as an assurance from God that he is near.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Ziegler School AJU

Companies invest millions of dollars to create the best-smelling scents. Here, however, the Torah intimates that it is not the invention of modern perfume companies; rather, even God has a preferred scent. A blend of secret substances that exhale perfume during combustion, the k’toret, an incense offering, became an important act of sacred worship.

I cannot recall ever smelling incense burning in synagogue. In fact, as a child, while such practice seemed more common in other religions’ houses of worship, it was alien to Jewish religious experience. Yet, the Torah describes the burning of aromatic spices as important and normative daily — morning and evening — activities within the Temple ritual. So important was this sacrifice that altering them in any way would result in estrangement. In fact, it was this type of departure from sacrificial norms that apparently caused the death of Aaron’s own sons, Nadav and Avihu (see Leviticus 10).

Touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell — our senses work together to help us understand the world and react to changes in the environment. Moreover, each of our senses is connected to and heightens the experience of the others. 

Likewise, true prayer (which was instituted to replace Temple sacrifice after the destruction of the Temple) invites a whole body, total sensory encounter. As the Psalmist says, “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 141:2) That’s a scent that is priceless!

Ilan Reiner
Author of “Israel History Maps”

Our parsha discusses three acts, as part of the routine work in the Mishkan (the Tabernacles), that need to be done twice a day, every day, with no exceptions, for generations to come. They are the burning of the offering, the incense of spices and the lighting of the menorah. All three are to be done once in the morning and once in the evening, every day (tamid), for every generation from now and forever (le’doroteikheim). All are related to fire and burning — the offering is burned on the altar, the incense goes up in smoke, and the candles are lit with fire.

Although all three seem to be linked, the words “tamid” (daily) and “le’ doroteikheim” (for generations to come) are mentioned only in regard to the offering and the incense. However, it’s the menorah that survived the turmoils of time and is with us to this day.

Even before the final destruction of the Temple, the priests ran out of lambs for offerings and incense for burning, because of the siege. But the menorah continued to be lit. The menorah stayed with us for generations upon generations. After the Babylonian exile, during the Maccabean uprising, carried by Jewish prisoners in Rome, engraved on coins, carved in synagogues and on tombs, and drawn in books. Always symbolizing light, knowledge and hope for a better tomorrow. Upon its foundation, the State of Israel chose the menorah as its emblem, to reflect the continuity and eternity of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

“Wake up and smell the coffee.” “Stop and smell the roses.” “Something smells fishy.” “The deal stinks.” 

There is something profound in the emphasis a great many of our expressions place on the olfactory experience. 

Nineteenth-century physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. recognized a great truth: “Memories, imagination, old sentiments and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel.” Of all the five senses, the aroma surrounding an experience creates the most powerful, albeit very often subconscious, lasting impression. 

Famed author Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.” The midrash and Jewish mystics find a biblical rationale: The first sin of humankind corrupted four of our senses. We heard God’s warning not to eat of the tree. We saw the tree and we were tempted. We touched its fruit and we tasted it. Our sense of smell however did not sin. 

The tabernacle in the desert and subsequently the Temple in Jerusalem taught us through its rituals how to introduce spirituality into our lives. Significantly, morning and evening, the high priest was to burn incense of sweet spices — “a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.” It is a reminder to us to emphasize the sweet aromas of the Shabbat table, the odors of a Jewish home on all its holidays, the distinctive fragrances of Jewish life, which fill us with constant awareness of God’s closeness and presence. How can we find God, people ask? Maybe, like for all lost objects which seek that seem to be hidden, He is here — right under our nose.

Jackie Redner
Rabbi in Residence, Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services

For those who work with individuals with special needs, there is something that needs to be offered up. It involves smoke and light. The smoke holds our confusion. With light, we see our confusion and we offer it up. We accept that we are limited when it comes to the mystery of one who is unable to give voice to thought. 

I have worked closely with individuals on the autism spectrum who have been unspeaking for many years. For much of their early life, they were rarely truly seen. Only their confusing symptoms were seen … by our own confused eyes. For years, they received the world around them, unable to show that they understood, not only 1, 2, 3 or where their nose is, but also the wonder of light, water, earth, sound and emotion. All with a clarity of thought and awareness that we could never fathom with our own confused notions of what autism is and what it is not. 

They have taught me this. Behind the confusion — mine and theirs — the light is ever-present. I have had the great privilege of working closely with those who, through an arduous struggle, learned how to type, one letter at a time, in order to share their world with us. Their words are pulled from a deep well, bursting through ongoing internal noise and a body hard to control. The effort, if you ponder it for a moment, can bring you to your knees. Offer up the smoke of confusion and always assume intelligence. 

During Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, Table for Five includes young voices from Vista Del Mar’s Moses-Aaron Cooperative Program.