Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tetzaveh/Ki Tissah 75 – The Incense Altar – Community, Empowerment and God's revelation

Part 1  -  The incense Altar - מזבח הקטורת   
Parashat Tettzaveh ends off with the commandment to build the incense Alter- מזבח הקטורת  also known as the golden Alter מזבח הזהב- or the inner Altar המזבח הפנימי – . It is called the inner Altar because it  was situated opposite the Ark – ארון הברית  together with the table-שולחן  and Menorah- מנורה.  The sacrificial Alter – מזבח העולה או חיצון  was situated in the courtyard of the tabernacle and temple. The obvious question is why was the incense Altar- מזבח הקטורת  not mentioned  in last week's parasha Teruma together with the  Ark, table and menorah and before the sacrificial Altar –מזבח העולה as  the Torah does when it details the tasks assigned to Betzalel, the description of the work done ,and  the way to  transport or assemble  the tabernacle-mishkan. After the sacrificial Altar is discussed at the end of Parashat  Terumah ,  the Torah interrupts the discussion of the vessels of the Mishkan  and discusses  for eg the clothing of the Kohanim- priests, the sanctification of the Kohanim and the daily sacrifice  -קרבן תמיד . At the conclusion of the section dealing with the daily sacrifices – קרבן תמיד  we have a pronounced and festive conclusion to all the commands concerning the construction of the Mishkan (29:43-46)  that echoes the introduction of making a sanctuary- מקדש, to dwell in their midst –  ושכנתי בתוכם  and I shall meet with you there found at the beginning of parashat Terumah. The question is now not only why the incense Altar is mentioned last , but why is it listed  separately from the other vessels – Ark, Table, Menorah and sacrificial Altar.?
The commentators explain that the essential purpose of the vessels of the Miskan was to provide a place where the Divine Presence could rest among the people. The incense Altar –מזבח הקטורת  had a different function. No sacrifices were brought on this altar . The incense , 11 ingredients were brought twice a day, on the incense Altar before the testimonial tablets in front of the Ark  – לפני העדות  . On Yom Kippur the Kohen  gadol,  the High Priest would bring the incense directly into the Holy of Holies, in front of the Ark. The fragrance of the incense was a way for the people to welcome the King, show honor to God and express their hope, responsibility and desire to serve God in a manner pleasing to Him. The incense had also the purpose of sheltering and protecting the people from the danger posed by the ' power of the Miskan' or any divine punishment in the form of a plague. The Mishkan and God's presence was like atomic energy , if not treated with the right respect and honor His Presence – the attribute of justice-מידת הדין  would cause a plague and a lot of destruction. The incense Altar in one way is considered as less important than the other vessels because if we don't have the Menorah we can't light the candles, if we don't have a table we can't bring the bread –לחם הפנים etc. The presence of the other vessels and constructions are considered a precondition for God to rest his glory on the holy Mishkan, but if the incense Altar is absent the incense is burned in its place, the altar is  not considered as  necessary for the fulfillment of the mitzvah. However, we can say that it is because of the importance of the Incense- Ketoret , that we may burn it without the Altar and it does not reflect on the Altar's importance. The Incense Altar is  a' holy of holies unto God', whereas the sacrificial Altar is just a holy of holies.
Rav Elchanan Summit suggests we look to service of the Kohen Gadol- High Priest on Yom Kippur to get an insight of the role of the incense Altar and the incense and why it is listed separately . In Vayikra 16:2 , the High Priest has to burn incense which will cause a 'cloud' of incense to cover the covering that is on the Ark. In many places  the Torah describes the revelation of God to a person from within a cloud. When man initiates the revelation, he must spread a man-made cloud of incense between himself and God. God's revelation is from above the covering between the 2 keruvim which are upon the Ark. So this is the reason why the incense Altar is placed before the partition directly opposite the Ark where I-God will meet with you – Moshe.
The Function of the vessels and constructions in the Miskan was to provide a resting place for the Divine Presence while burning the incense on the incense Altar was man's effort in initiating God's revelation and facilitating the encounter that takes place between Moshe and God above the Ark's covering. It is for this reason they are listed separately.

Part 2-  The incense – הקטורת
We have mentioned above that the incense – הקטורת  was expression of the wish  to serve God in a manner pleasing to Him,2. it played a role in initiating God's revelation as on Mount Sinai and 3.  would   protect the people against divine attribution –מידת הדין  in the form - of a plague- .  The incense was made of 11 ingredients including a spice, the galbanum –חלבנה  that  had a foul aroma .  The Sages learn from this that sinners should be included with the community in its prayers - for example on fast days and Yom Kippur , a fast that does not include sinners is not called a fast. God's revelation at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given was made possible by unity of the people, righteous and the sinner sharing in the service of God. In a similar way , the unity of the people is expressed through  the burning of the incense and this facilitates God's  revelation . When a plague was decreed on the people it did not distinguish between righteous and wicked people, so the remedy – the incense=קטורת    does not distinguish between good and bad people, everybody is accepted and can find a place in the community of God. There are no winners when there is conflict , discord and argument. Your brother is not the enemy. The   bad  smelling galbanum - חלבנה  brings out even more sweet fragrance from the other spices. When we try to be inclusive and make people feel welcome and accepted in the community and do our best to help these people with their challenges, we ourselves become more empowered and more resourceful as we make ourselves be a friend and a help to needy people ,  who need our help both emotionally, spiritually and physically.

Part 3 The school, home as a community/supportive family
When it comes to our children we tend to be very protective of them against the negative influences of other children in a school or we even force a kid to leave the home because of a negative influence he may have on other kids. If the school and home are interested in building ' community ' , kids and their teachers , family members who have a vision and are  working, learning and playing together in a cooperative and caring way ,  can be inclusive and have a positive influence on so-called  negative kids. When there is no  community , negative kids can have a big influence on other kids who don't feel accepted and successful. In a school community where the focus is not on competition but on being a resource for other kids, helping other kids with their learning, excellence is redefined. Excellence is not about honor rolls and achievement in academics and on the school sports field , but making a contribution to other kids learning and making an impact on their lives as friends, confidants and peer mentors. Thus struggling kids can bring out the best in the talented ones. The same goes with the family. If parents focus on how their behavior contributes to the family dynamic and interactions with challenging kids ,and  with what these kids need from them, on connection  and not on control , they become very much aware of themselves and the challenging kid becomes the catalyst for enormous personal growth. The same goes for siblings who take a certain responsibility for their challenging brothers. And in the process challenging kids learn skills and they too become contributors to the family and school community. As individuals we tend to think just of ourselves – what will I get if I do what is expected of me or what will be done to me if I break a rule. When we are in a community- family mindset , we ask how do my actions impact on others , is this the type of community we want , and is this the type of person I want to be. And this is all based on seeing people and kids and even the most challenging ones being made in God's image and having a soul deep down waiting for connection. 

The incense Altar and the incense inform us how Community can empower us and facilitate God's revelation. When our approach to school and family is based on building a community of learners and a supportive family , we will adopt an inclusive approach to struggling kids which will empower the other kids as well as kids who struggle with behavior , academic or spiritual issues.

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