Incensed: Tetazveh 2016

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Leadoff Questions: What Jewish prayers mean the most to you? Are your favorite prayers some of the more prominent ones in our prayer books, or are they said more rarely? What is it about these prayers that make them your favorites?

In the Hebrew Bible, prayer was a less common form of worship; rather, offering sacrifices took more precedent. Yet there are some occasions when we find evidence of prayer, and our portion this week, Tetzaveh, includes one such example.

Text: “You shall make an altar for burning incense; make it of acacia wood.” (Exodus 30:1)

Commentary #1: “The person who doubts whether others can be influenced, the one who doubts whether his children can really be good people, will, unfortunately, often see his worst prophecies fulfill themselves. Faith in others and the ability to lead them comes from the absolute certainty that they are completely good at the core. If a person who is essentially good seeks forgiveness, he or she must be forgiven. There is no qualifying phrase, ‘… and if not, erase me.’ And thus, the building of the [incense] Altar …” – Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Paradise: Breathtaking Strolls Through the Length and Breadth of Torah

Commentary #2: “In Psalm 141:2, incense is used as a metaphor for prayer: ‘Let my prayer be as an offering of incense before You.’ The Talmudic sages note (Tanhuma) that each of the consonants in the Hebrew word for incense stands for one of the qualities associated with sincere prayer: Kedushah (holiness), Tohorah (purity), Rahamim (compassion), and Tikvah (hope). – Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Sidrah Sparks: Talking Torah at the Table with Your Family

Commentary #3: “The reason why here the golden altar, primarily used for the burning of the incense, has been mentioned only after the details of the construction of the Tabernacle have all been recorded, as well as details of the sacrifices, is to inform the reader that after all is said and done, the crucial element in securing the presence of the Shechinah in the Tabernacle, i.e. within the encampment of the Jewish people, was that the presentation of the incense on that altar was of such importance to God, as we know already from Moses’ own reference to this importance of the presentation of incense in order to defuse God’s anger at His people. … It was an expression of appreciation for being allowed to house the Shechinah on earth.” – Rosh

Late-Inning Questions: Each of our commentaries claim that incense was the instrument most closely associated with prayer within the sacrificial cult. When we consider some of the other elements of ancient sacrificial practice (the slaughtering of animals, burning animal corpses, sprinkling animal blood on the altar, etc.), does it make sense that the incense shares more in common with prayer than anything else? Or can you imagine relating more to the other aspects of sacrificing? Some people believe that, at a future time of redemption, we might return to a sacrificial worship system based out of a third Temple in Jerusalem. Is this something to hope for, or does our modern-day system of prayer make for a more fulfilling worship experience?

On Deck at Emanu-El: We look forward to honoring our beloved Marilyn Hoffman at a gala event one month from today! Marilyn has been an integral part of our synagogue, supporting the congregation in numerous ways, including planning some of our most successful and spectacular fundraising events in recent years. This is, of course, in addition to the tremendous work she does throughout the Charleston community. I hope you will join us in thanking Marilyn at the Charleston Marriott Hotel on the evening of Saturday, March 19th. We need your RSVP by March 1st to reserve your space!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of prayer … how do you feel when high-level athletes thank God for their successes on the field? Tommy Lasorda, a longtime manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was fond of saying that God’s favorite color is Dodger Blue. Certainly this is an example of hyperbole not meant to be taken seriously; it’s hard to imagine any deity rooting for one team more than another. But is it reasonable for athletes to thank God for granting them strength and abilities to enable them to play well? Or does that imply that God chose to give them more ability than their opponents?

Shabbat Shalom!