Parashat Ki Tisa: turning a bad smell to a good aroma

One of the directives pertains to the making of the incense, a blend of herbs and balms placed on coals inside the Mishkan, which spread a pleasant smell

‘THE ALTAR of incense.’  (Print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations;  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘THE ALTAR of incense.’ (Print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations;
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, we read a slew of directives given to Moses in preparation for building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, that temporary temple that accompanied the Jewish nation until the Temple was established in its permanent place in Jerusalem.
One of the directives pertains to the making of the incense, a blend of herbs and balms placed on coals inside the Mishkan, which spread a pleasant smell:
“And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Take for yourself aromatics, [namely] balsam sap, onycha and galbanum, aromatics and pure frankincense; they shall be of equal weight. And you shall make it into incense... And you shall set some of it before the testimony in the Tent of Meeting... it shall be to you a holy of holies’” (Exodus 30:34-36).
One of the ingredients in the incense was the galbanum. Surprisingly, the Talmud says that this ingredient actually had a bad smell! This peculiar detail is related to a fabled story which is no less surprising:
“Rav Hana bar Bizna says that Rabbi Shimon Hasida says: Any fast that does not include the participation of some of the sinners of the Jewish people is not a fast, as the smell of galbanum is foul and yet the verse lists it with the ingredients of the incense” (Keritot 6).
That foul-smelling ingredient, when mixed with all the other ingredients of the incense, made its smell pleasant. The blending of its smell with other smells combined to form a pleasant aroma. Our Sages learned something from this about the complexity of human society and the manner in which society should be conducted.
Many of the negative acts done in our world stem from loneliness, from disconnection, from the emotional distancing between a person and his environment. There could be a trait that in a certain situation can bring about blessings for the world, but if a person is disconnected from society and acts alone, that same trait can become an obstacle and bring about negative behavior.
When man stands before God, it is an individual act, since each of us is a person unto himself. But there is also a shared aspect of a society composed of many different kinds of people, some good, some less. When they unite and stand together before God, they create a joint reality which does not exist when each of them stands separately. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
This is how the Rabbi Nissim of Gerona (14th century) explains this:
“The message to us in the galbanum – which was placed with the incense and it seemed like it would ruin it because of its bad smell, and with that the prophecy states that it is not complete without it – is that so it is when we are joined in our worship of God by the sinners and criminals, that our worship is not ruined, but by this it becomes even more complete” (Derashot Haran).
A healthy society is one that can also contain its less pleasant parts and repair them by properly integrating them. According to Rabbi Nissim, the entire society benefits from this.
The incense spreading a pleasant aroma in the Mishkan represents the entire Jewish nation, with all its varied layers and styles. Even the “sinners,” when they are involved and integrated into society, spread a pleasant aroma that honors God in the Mishkan. ■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.


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