Seder HaKorbanot Part Two

The Incense

“It is You, L-rd our G-d, to whom our ancestors offered fragrant incense when the Temple stood, as You commanded them through Moses Your prophet, as is written in Your Torah” – with these words we pull our attention away from the Tamid sacrifice (Seder HaKorbanot Part One) and focus on the Incense offering via selected portions from Shmot 30 and Talmud.

As with the Tamid offering we are carefully guided through the steps of preparation and offering the Incense.  As with the Tamid offering errors are capital offenses; the kohen’s life actually depended on getting everything exactly, perfectly, precisely correct.  Even now while we recite the name of each ingredient along with the steps of preparing and offering the incense we are cautioned to be scrupulous – as though we are actually performing each of the respective tasks.  In our mind’s eye we watch Aharon’s sons, Nadab & Abihu, die – killed by HaShem due to their carelessness with the incense offering (Vayikra 10)).

Unlike the Tamid offering, the Incense offering was unseen by the populace, literally performed behind the closed doors of the Heiḥol.  Specifically coordinated with the twice daily tending of the menorah, the Incense created a cloud to hide & protect the kohen as he tended the lamps of the menorah. 

Incense is said to represent the hidden and the intimate, our emotional connection with HaShem.  It is also connected to the golden menorah which represents illumination and intellectual connection.  Together, the incense and menorah combine to convey how we, to fully connect with HaShem, need to blend both our emotions and intellect.

Our study about the Incense ends with a journey through selected Tehillim with a Malaḥi finale.  As we read through these verses we ask, what does the context – the full text of each tehillah – impart about the Incense?  . . . and we notice the hidden & revealed; the protected & emboldened.

“The L-rd of hosts is with us; the G-d of Ya’akov is our stronghold, Selah.”   Tehillim 46

Recited thrice, this tehillah juxtaposes the peace in Yerushalayim with the upheaval of the world during the last days; a time when HaShem’s sovereignty is obvious to all nations.  As we watch the nations react to the reality of HaShem, we are amazed, assured, protected, comforted; secure in opening our hearts and expressing our love to HaShem.

“L-rd of hosts, happy is the one who trusts in You.”  Tehillim 84

Recited thrice, we express joy in the fact that we belong to HaShem.  We openly demonstrate our love for HaShem through our daily behavior and choices, boldly revealing our love for HaShem to all around us.

“L-rd, save!  May the King answer us on the day we call.”  Tehillim 20

Recited thrice, we are encouraged to stand fast and recognize HaShem’s provision & strength toward those who trust in Him – even in the midst of chaos.

“You are my hiding place; You will protect me from distress and surround me with songs of salvation, Selah.”  Tehillim 32

We now recognize a deeper connection with HaShem in which secrets are revealed.  We are no longer children obeying a parent, but intimates, mutually transparent and timeless – the embodiment of “I am my beloved, my beloved is mine.”

“Then the offering of Yehuda and Yerushalayim will be pleasing to the L-rd as in the days of old and as in former years.”  Malaḥi 3

We now embrace our constant hope & heartache, allowing ourselves to dream for a moment of the rebuilt Holy Temple.  Our elation is counterbalanced by a crushing grief so eloquently expressed by our Sages of Blessed Memory that, “any generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt is considered as if it had destroyed it.“

We continue our preparation for the Shaḥrit Amida, anticipating the commemoration of the Tamid offering.  We are grateful for the reenactments which lend substance to our vision of our ancient – and our future – Temple sacrifices.  We will later be reminded of the Incense offering, considered to be HaShem’s favorite sacrifice, during Ein K’Eloheinu as we conclude the Shabbat Musaf; “You are He to whom our ancestors offered the fragrant incense.”

Mah Tovu

“How goodly are your tents, O Ya’akov, your dwelling places O Yisra’el. As for me, through Your abundant kindness I will enter Your House; I will prostrate myself toward Your Holy Sanctuary in awe of You. O Hashem, I love the House where You dwell, and the place where Your glory resides. I shall prostrate myself and bow, I shall kneel before Hashem my Maker. As for me, may my prayer to You, Hashem, be at an opportune time; O Hashem, in Your abundant kindness, answer me with the truth of Your salvation.”

B’Midbar 24:5

This prayer, traditionally sung as we enter synagogue for services, is a combination of five separate verses; one from B’Midbar and the rest from four different Tehillim. This simple device is a clarion call to us, urging us to pause and to look carefully at this prayer and to study the source context of the individual verses to better understand the prayer’s overall intent.

The first verse quotes Bil’am, a gentile prophet. Hired by Balak, king of Mo’av, to curse Yisra’el, Bil’am instead blesses Yisra’el. This was not due to any special affinity he had toward Yisra’el; rather, Bil’am was given a vision of Yisra’el from Hashem – the praise and blessings then poured forth.

This is a beautiful and compassionate prelude for worshippers entering Schul. Jewish worshipers rejoice in Hashem’s sovereignty over all creation as they recount Bil’am’s words praising The Nation. Any apprehension gentiles may feel by entering an unfamiliar setting is eased as they join with the gentile prophet Bil’am in praising and blessing Yisra’el.

The next four verses are from Tehillim 5, 26, 95, and 69. All four of these Tehillim are fraught with wicked and violent images. The particular verses cited in Mah Tovu are warm rays of sunshine from the midst of darkness, shining in stark contrast to the dangers and worldly concerns which otherwise abound in these Tehillim.

The beginning of the final verse, “As for me, may my prayer to You . . . ” can also be translated, “I am my prayer to You.” This is a humbling reminder that, while we may at times attempt to detach our secular lives from our prayers, Hashem draws no such distinction. The totality of our lives, our choices, our actions, is our prayer to Hashem.

These are the words and images which prepare us as we enter synagogue for services. We are entering a special place; we are entering a special time. Mah Tovu re-aligns our minds, our thoughts, and our hearts so we can worship Hashem without distraction or hesitation.

Mah Tovu is our gentle stroll as we enter synagogue, bringing to mind the worshipers who centuries ago climbed the Southern steps of the Har HaBayit in Yerushalayim. The steps, intentionally varied in height and depth, forced worshipers to pause and reflect on the holiness of the place they were about to enter. Some scholars connect the fifteen interspersed long steps to the fifteen Tehillim of Ascent (120 – 134). Worshipers would sing the Tehillim, one by one, as they paused on each of the long steps.

Mah Tovu, in essence, offers us a time of preparation. Our challenge, and our joy, is to embrace the period of quiet reflection as we and those around us get ready to worship with The Nation.

May He answer us with the truth of His Salvation.