With Rabbi Jeff Berger.
PARSHAT KI Tisa is best known for B’nei Yisrael’s ‘fall from grace’ soon after the Sinai Revelation. But the earlier part of the parasha informs a more normative, uplifting series of responsibilities. First, is the mahasit hashekel collection (half- shekel) mimicked on Purim night; then comes fashioning the copper washing laver and forming the ketoret (incense).
These are followed by the appointment of Bezalel ben Uri ben Hur as architect of the mishkan (Tabernacle) and the command to observe Shabbat. The Babylonian Talmud (Zebahim 88b) notes the clothing of the Kohane Gadol (High Priest) symbolically atones for various sins committed by the people.
At the end of the section is a comment relating to the incense – that it comes to atone for the sin of Lashon Hara (evil speech). This is derived from an incident later in the Torah when, after speaking badly of Moshe and Aharon, a plague breaks out and kills 14,700 people (Bamidbar 17:12).
By passing with burning incense through the crowds of those who were dying, Aharon miraculously stays the plague. The Talmud deduces that the High Priest’s daily incense offering in the inner chamber of the mishkan served to atone for ‘evil speech’ spread by the Jewish people.
A short while ago while visiting Yavneh College, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, speaking about the blessing one makes on spices during havdalah, pointed out the popular axiom, ‘over smells and tastes, one can’t take issue – al ta’am va’rei’akh, ain lehit’vakei’akh.’
In other words, one’s sense of smell and taste is highly subjective. Each of us has our likes and dislikes and there’s little point trying to force someone to like something just because we do.
From this observation, the Chief Rabbi concluded that in life there will be those who have different opinions to us. The incense from havdalah reminds us of the need to be tolerant of other’s views and backgrounds.
A separate Talmudic passage read by Sephardim twice daily explains there were 11 distinct elements making up the ketoret, one which was foul-smelling (galbanum, helbenah).
These had to be ground and mixed into an extremely fine powder. The foul smelling helbanah added contrast to the others and was required for the mixture to be valid.
Like incense, to be worthy of God’s affection, we must be careful of what we say, be tolerant of others and recognise that sometimes bad helps accentuate the good.