6 March 2010/20 Adar 5770 — Shabbat Ki Tissa — “God’s Recipe”

11/03/2010 at 19:57 Leave a comment

“God’s Recipe”

Neil F. Blumofe

Before our Torah portion brings us to the incidents of the Golden Calf and the dilemma of Moses smashing the Tablets of the Teaching, our portion opens with the final instructions for Moses before his descent back to the people who are waiting nervously and impatiently at the foot of Mt. Sinai.  God instructs Moses to count the people not one at a time, bur rather to count them through their contributions to a larger effort.  This teaches that we are all bound together, past our own individual accomplishments and our future hinges on how we exist as a larger community.  Individual success is not enough to sustain us, rather we are all responsible for each other, rich and poor, strong and weak, young and old, agile and feeble.

In these last descriptions of objects and materials for the mishkan (the tablernacle), we have a description of not the animals for the larger altar – here, we have five verses that describe the offering of the incense, which is called ketoret in Hebrew and which was offered not on the Copper Altar, which was reserved for the animals – the ketoret was offered on the smaller, Golden Altar which was placed inside the Tabernacle, next to the Holy of Holies (Kodesh Kodashim) in the mishkan – in this sacred construction, this altar was just adjacent to the ground zero of God’s presence, in the closest proximity to the center of the holiest place on earth.

Our sages derive that there were eleven ingredients in making the incense.  The incense was offered twice a day – once in the morning and once in the afternoon —  bad b’vad — and that all of the ingredients, when mixed together evenly represent all of Israel coming together to serve God – each of us represented by at least one of the spices.  There is an interesting ingredient mentioned in the recipe for ketoret – a spice called chelbena, or in many translations, galbanum – which was known as a spice that smelled terrible and caused a foul odor when burned.  So amid the combination of spices that was to be offered to God next to the Kodesh Kodashim, an integral ingredient for this mixture to be successful was something putrid which was necessary in having a pure and holy mixture of incense before God.

The Talmud takes this idea about the chelbana and much like the idea about the census and counting people who are part of the journey, teaches that this unpleasant smelling spice is necessary because it represents even those of us who are disagreeable, bad-tempered and wayward – that all of us are necessary and always present in our service to God.  This is a powerful and difficult lesson.  It would be so much easier to cut and run – to disengage and drive out those who we think make our lives difficult – to surround ourselves with likeminded and easygoing people who won’t annoy us.  How many of us have a coworker, or a neighbor or someone in one of our circles of contact whose presence negatively changes us in some way, each time we interact with them?

If we view ourselves as the incense, all mixed together in equal parts to serve God, we hit upon a profound theological message.  So much of our commentary speaks about the sin of the Golden Calf and how each year at Yom Kippur, we try again to expiate this action in our pleas for forgiveness.  As important as addressing this action is, I do not equate the Golden Calf with a sin that somehow will not go away – it is not the Jewish version of a prestained soul – or anything to do with a version of original sin.  So much is placed on the back of this Golden Calf – according to traditional commentary, even our requirement for fixed prayer throughout the day.  Can you imagine that this element of our tradition considers a regular practice of prayer a tircha, or a discomfort or even an inconvenience – that our prayers, our service to God comes out of a period of waiting – a group of newly formed community, waiting for their leader to return, waiting with idle hands?  Wouldn’t God know that the people were getting restless and couldn’t God have made the audience with Moses shorter, so Moses could return sooner?

It is not the action of fashioning the Golden Calf, but the recognition that in any moment we have the potential to again build the Golden Calf.  We recognize that in every community and in every situation, we are evenly mixed – before Hurricane Katrina, there used to be a cartoon always affixed to the refrigerator of Anne’s parents in New Orleans – it was an old Far Side cartoon, by Gary Larson with God having just finished creating the world, which looks incredible and inviting and perfect and then with what looks like a salt shaker in hand, God is sprinkling over the entire globe, a finishing spice – a seasoning called “jerks.”  Jerks, everywhere.

And too, these disagreeable people are not just outside of us, lying in wait for us to make our lives miserable – it was said that the 19th century Hasidic master Rebbe Simcha Bunem of Peshischa used to carry two different notes in his pockets.  On some occasions, after a particularly tough day, he reached into one of his pockets and read some words of uplift – “the world was created for my sake.”  In other times, perhaps after bursts of pride and hubris, he would go into the other pocket and pick out what seemed to be the opposite message – “I am but dust and ashes.”

If, as our tradition teaches, that revelation is always occurring, everyday – then the challenge of the Golden Calf is also with us, everyday.  Ultimately, as much as we might like to, we cannot control others around us – we can’t limit another’s reaction to something.  And sometimes it’s us – we are the problem.  Sometimes we are a key to the solution that is necessary and sometimes we are a killjoy or a destroyer of someone else’s happiness.  This mixture is not masked with other qualities – in making our incense, every ingredient is necessary on our better days and in days that we find most challenging.

Also, we must recognize that we are not in perpetual servitude to the sin of the Golden Calf – rather we must be aware of when we have the inclination to build it and get away from what is more real, important and worthwhile.  In our study we must transcend our bad habits and our short fused emotions and recognize that we are but dust and ashes – we can pay attention to the smells that we are giving off to others – sometimes we smell like a rose and sometimes we smell like chelbana. Nevertheless, in our lives that we make holy in our complex recipes, each of us is joined together in something larger, which our tradition calls God’s service and however we smell in the moment, all of us are mixed equally, inside and out, giving a fragrance of meaning and purpose as we live our lives together.

Shabbat Shalom.

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What does “The Illuminated Dust of the Day” Mean? 13 March 2010/27 Adar 5770 — Shabbat Vayakhel/Pekudei — “Doing the Unalienable Work”

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