I asked myself, what's all this incense stuff about? (Exodus 30:1-10)
The altar for burnt offerings was located in the other half of the mishkan, away from the Holy of Holies. But the incense altar was to be placed immediately before the Holy of Holies. Well, perhaps there are some practical considerations here. Burnt offerings are gonna make a lot of smoke - better that it not fog up the Holy of Holies.
But what is it that G"d is really telling us here? I have a thought. What is it in our culture that creates burnt offerings? Well, we certainly cook lots of meat. To do so means killing animals. Now G"d did ask us to sacrifice animals - but by placing the altar apart from the Ark, perhaps G"d was telling us that while it may be a necessity, it is not quite holy enough to be so near to G"d. And not something we should necessarily enjoy. So we may find it necessary to have "burnt offerings" in our lives, but G"d wants us to keep our distance with them.
What about the needless sacrifice of human lives to war? They are burnt offerings, though I know not to which G"d. Bombs, napalm, radiation poisoning, chemical weapons, air burst devices, etc. These things surely are not pleasing to G"d, but G"d knows they do happen. We turn human beings into charred sacrifices. Perhaps G"d is reminding us to keep our "burnt offerings" away from the holy. That killing, that war cannot truly be "holy" even if being fought in God's name? That anything that involves killing, be it animal or human being doesn't "quite smell right" and should be kept apart from that which is truly holy.
Then what is the incense all about? Is it a superficial dress-up? A way to let G"d think that everyone smells sweet when in reality we are stinking up the place with our actions? Or is it a way that G"d is allowing us to practice that deception on ourselves when we enter G"d's presence? Well, on that last point, that isn't necessarily all bad. When we enter the Holy of Holies (or, in contemporary terms, to enter God's presence or do holy work) we should feel good about ourselves. Sweet incense might very well help us to lift our spirit and improve our attitude.
The sweetness of the incense serves to remind us of the sweetness of G"d's presence and G"d's covenant. And how better to get an attitude adjustment. In instructing Aaron to light incense every morning and every evening, God is perhaps telling us to try and find some sweetness in every day, and at all times.
Like pressed flower petals that serve to remind us of the sweetness of the flower they came from, and the sweetness of the memory that accompanies those petals, the incense is a reminder of the sweetness of God's presence in our lives. The trick is to carry the remembrance of the sweet smell of the incense when we come out of the holy space and into the stench of the burning sacrifices of daily life.
I realized as I was reading this that there was more to say about it. So here goes.
We are a funny species. We have certainly adapted to a lifestyle that is as odor sweet as we can make it. We fill our restrooms, our homes, our businesses with timed automatic odor-covering sprays, spray disinfectants and other modern forms of incense. We even have air-filtering devices. Food, drinks, winers and all sorts of other products have their odors tailored for our sensibilities. Magazines drop scratch and sniff samples. We laden ourselves with perfumes, colognes and scented soaps.
Is this all an attempt to divorce us from the everyday odors and smells of life? If so, is it wise? Most of us no longer raise our own food, so we have that distance which enables us to alleviate our guilt. Our connection with our planet grows ever more distant. Maybe if we allowed ourselves to smell the normal odors of life we could regain our connection? Moreover, the unpleasant odors would surely work their way with us. If we couldn't mask the smell of slaughterhouses, of death on the battlefield, of noxious gases, perhaps we'd work harder to eliminate some of these things.
Life these days is truly filled with the stench of burning sacrifices. We've offered up our planet on the altar of greed. Our financial system is certainly starting to smell like a rotting corpse. There are all sorts of odors in the air-greed, despair, lust, fear. Our natural instinct seems to be to want to cover them up. As I suggested 11 years ago, the incense, the sweetness of worship, of being in a holy space and encountering the G"d of our understanding-we can carry the remembrance with us to make the stench of everyday life bearable. Well folks, it's getting really smelly out there. Instead of trying to cover it up, maybe we should allow them to be, and finds ways to
carry the remembrance of the sweet smell of the incense when we come out of the holy space and into the stench of the burning sacrifices of daily life.
May your Shabbat be filled with only sweetness, and may you carry it with you into the week
Shabbat Shalom, and have a joyous Purim,
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester