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Parsha Ponderings-Tetzaveh

SELF-ALTARATION

ועשית מזבח מקטר קטרת

And you shall make an Altar of Incense-burning

Buried in the back pages of Parshas Tetzaveh, a Parsha otherwise entirely devoted to the topic of priests and their vestments, we discover a discussion regarding the building of the Altar of Incense. While similar discussions of other Tabernacle vessels are confined to earlier Parshiyos, the Altar of Incense somehow makes its way into ours.

Why the Altaration? What unique relation might the building of this specific Altar share with the topic of priesthood to warrant its insertion?

The primary job of the priests in the Temple, was to reconcile God and His nation. Indeed, most all the priestly activities involved achieving atonement for one iniquity or another of the errant Jew or Jews. Yet how, the question begs to be asked, can a priest honestly approach God and attempt to defend one who has dared sin before Him? More importantly, how can the priest help the sinful Jew become a changed person so that God is willing to reinvite him into His presence?

The answer, apparently, is the incense. Our Sages tell us that amongst the spices used in the unique Temple incense-mixture, was the particularly putrid Chelbana spice. The rationale for including this peculiar ingredient was to demonstrate the ultimate redeemability of even the least morally pleasant elements of society.

Yet what is it about the incense specifically which lends itself to the redemption of the morally corrupt?

Apparently, the incense burning, which entails the extraction of a dormant but inborn pleasant scent from something by way of the destruction of its tangible self, serves as an exact metaphor to the process of repentance and atonement. While the sinner as is seems completely inexonerable, the destruction of his external facade releases an ever-present yet dormant pleasantness from the untarnished recesses of his innately uncorruptible soul. It is only when this hidden dimension of his personality is brought to the fore that he can then rebuild an active persona truly congruent with that uncorrupted core of his character. The Torah is thus telling every priest that he must first internalize the message of the incense before attempting to translate that very process to the repentant sinners he seeks to help.

And the Torah is telling us that we must first recognize a dimension within untainted by sin and uncorrupted by misconduct, before we can attempt to rectify the external dimensions which have been tainted and corrupted.

We need not self-destruct, we need merely reconstruct, upon a foundation never shaken, our conduct long forsaken.

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