This portion, Tetzaveh, contains some themes that literally jump out at one, asking to be talked about. There is, of course, the whole issue of the priestly garments-fodder for a whole "do clothes make the man?" discussion. I wrote about that two years ago. And there is, as I wrote about last year for this portion, God's promise to live among us. I wrote: "I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be a God for them. They will realize that I, God their Lord, brought them out of Egypt to make My presence felt among them. I am God their Lord." Ex 29:45-46
Wow! Way cool! Awesome! God will dwell among us. An honor for us (and an honor for God, too.) Now we have an answer to the question "what do we get in return for this brit (covenant) we are making?" that goes beyond materialistic promises (like land, great nationhood, etc.) We get the best deal of all. A live-in God.
End of quote. I still hear those words resounding. But this year, I focused on something totally different. 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 God 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 God did ask us to sacrifice animals - but by placing the altar apart from the Ark, perhaps God was telling us that while it may be a necessity, it is not quite holy enough to be so near to me. And not something we should necessarily enjoy. So we may find it necessary to have "burnt offerings" in our lives, but God 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 God. Bombs, napalm, radiation poisoning, chemical weapons, air burst devices, etc. These things surely are not pleasing to God, but God knows they do happen. We turn human beings into charred sacrifices. Perhaps God 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 God think that everyone smells sweet when in reality we are stinking up the place with our actions? Or is it a way that God is allowing us to practice that deception on ourselves when we enter God'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 God's presence and God'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.
May your Shabbat be filled with only sweetness, and may you carry it with you into the week.
© 2000 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some other musings on this parasha:
Tetzaveh 5766-Silent Yet
Tetzaveh 5765 and 5761-Aharon's Bells
Tetzaveh 5764-Shut Up and Listen!
Tetzaveh 5763-House Guest
Tetzaveh 5762 (Redux 5760)-The Urim and Thummim Show
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