It Makes ‘Scents’!

Rabbi Zvi Teichman

A famous anomaly related to this week’s portion is the omission of Moshe’s name from the entire reading.

We are taught that this is due to Moshe after hearing from G-d, subsequent to the sin of the Golden Calf, that He intended to eradicate the entire nation saving only Moshe from whom a new nation would arise, that Moshe protested by stating, forgive their sin… if not, erase me now from Your book, which You have written

Moshe was willing to forfeit his life and his accomplishments for the sake of his beloved nation. G-d retracted His decision permitting the nation to survive, but symbolically fulfilled Moshe’s request by omitting his name from this one portion.

Why though did G-d select this portion specifically from among many others to carry out Moshe’s entreaty?

G-d’s exact response to Moshe seems at odds with the tradition we have.

In His rejoinder to Moshe G-d tells him: whoever has sinned against Me, him I will erase from My book.

The reply seemed to be a total rejection of Moshe’s suggestion, with G-d seemingly asserting that only the deserving sinners will be erased from the Book of Life. There is no further dialogue reported regarding this issue.

The third Belzer Rebbe, Reb Yissocher Dov, offers a brilliant interpretation to resolve this dilemma.

Moshe sought to remove his fate from among those recorded in the Book of the Righteous rather than forsake his beloved flock. His intent was to be bonded and fated with them in the Book of the Wicked, if that’s what it took. G-d however had a better idea. Agreeing with Moshe in principle that they shall be entwined forever, but rather than Moshe being inscribed among the wicked, G-d will have them all etched among the destiny of the righteous with Moshe. When G-d states ‘whoever has sinned, him I will erase from My book’, He meant from the book of sinners, but will be placed instead with Moshe among the righteous.

Where is the justice in this? How can sinners be given a pardon based simply on Moshe’s throwing down the gauntlet?

Until this juncture Moshe embodied all of Torah. The nation was expected to follow suit in abiding by all its laws. When they failed miserably at the Sin of the Golden Calf, it was over, a botched experiment. G-d therefore called for a new game plan, starting from scratch from Moshe alone. Moshe understood that this simply wasn’t viable, he couldn’t carry on without them as they were an essential part of him. G-d, consented, but instructed them regarding the deeper consequence of this reality. It was no longer a relationship of a teacher with a disciple, but rather an embodiment of Moshe by the people. The lessons of Torah would be taught through the lives, challenges and failures they would face and endure. It would be a process within everyone, who each possessed a ‘piece’ of Moshe that would have to come to fruition in the lives they lead and the manner they reacted. Every soul although inherently pure, would nevertheless have to struggle to discover its brilliance. G-d would never give up, for He knew that ultimately the collective ‘soul of Moshe’ would accomplish its task.

Moshe’s disappearance from our portion wasn’t a diminishing of his presence but rather the expression of his submersion within the ‘soul of the nation’ who by living its ideals would become the fullest manifestation of ‘Moshe’.

At the end of our portion the directive to construct the altar upon which the incense would be brought is recorded.

Weren’t the vessels of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, already enumerated in the previous portion? Why is this listed here amongst and after the discussion of the priestly garments and the inaugural sacrifices?

The Midrash Tanchuma teaches that this altar and its service is distinct from all that preceded it. 

Everything up until this point was implemented for man’s sake to serve, devote and grow spiritually in that experience atoning for one’s failures. It certainly was not to fulfill a ‘need’ of G-d as all is His and possessed by Him.

The fragrant incense, in distinction, was brought to bring joy to G-d, as it were, and display His personal satisfaction with His servants. It is thus placed separately at the very end.

Is this a ‘need’ that must be filled? The One who ‘owns and governs all’ cannot possibly ‘need’ this.

The early commentaries point out that the word for incense, קטרת, is actually an acronym of the following words: קדושה — sanctity;טהרה  — purity;רחמים  — compassion;תקוה , hope.(מדרש תנחומא) 

How are these attributes and attitudes unique to the Incense?

In Israel, many schools have report cards with three categories of general comments assessing the child’s standing: מאוד טוב — very good, טוב — good, and  כמעט טוב— nearly good. A good-humored teacher who had a particular student who was both greatly challenged and very challenging, added a fourth category,  יהיה טוב— It will be good!

G-d wants to be in a state of joy, so that we may sense His love and appreciation.

The scent that rises from the special formula unique to the Ketores, represent the inner essence represented in the vaporized molecules, that which is invisible and ethereal. G-d acknowledges the inner essence of each our beings, our special souls, which strive towards closeness, even when externally it may not appear as such. G-d knows that we will each come to manifest that spark of Moshe that is bursting forth.

He senses and cherishes those who have reached sanctityקדושה — , and even those who have only sloughed off impurity alone —טהרה . His compassion understands the struggles of those who are still entrenched in contamination, trying to come clean —רחמים. And even those who seemingly wander purposelessly, G-d still holds out hope that indeed יהיה טוב, it will be good — תקוה!(שפתי צדיק) 

Although the incense represents the personal and private joy of G-d, yet that fragrance cannot be kept private, since it envelopes every space way beyond the Altar of Incense. It is intentionally so, because it is that pervading presence of G-d that our ‘Moshe Souls’ can connect to wherever we may discover it, wherever we find ourselves.

May we each make ‘scents’ out of the myriad of opportunities that come our way in manifesting new lessons in Torah and Avodah, in the spirit of Moshe, our very essence and soul.

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