Within The Smoke Of Incense


The ritual of preparing the incense appears in Achrei Mot/Kedoshim, “And he shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord” [Leviticus 16:13]. Although the absence of the Holy Temple renders the procedural incense rite inoperative in our present era, the Midrash Tanchuma adds a new and more pertinent dimension to it. The Midrash relates that the Hebrew word for incense, ketoret, is imagined as an acronym (KeToReT): the letter kuf represents kedusha (holiness); tet is for tahara (purity); resh is for rachamim (mercy); and taf is for tikva (hope).

The prime element of kedoshim (kedusha) is God’s charge to us: “You shall be holy because I, the Lord your God am holy” [Lev. 19:2]. The Book of Leviticus begins by detailing the various sacrifices to be offered in the Tabernacle or Holy Temple. Subsequently, we are instructed to observe the laws of kashrut, the dietary laws. This week, we are instructed to have integrity when dealing with money and financial matters [Lev. 19:35-36].

The very design of these commandments seek to remind us that the adherence to both ritual and ethical laws are essential to living a life of holiness. Faith in God and a strong commitment to Torah should serve as the tools motivating us to maintain the highest moral and ethical standards.

Tahara refers to purity: To be pure, we need not be perfect but sincere, acting with integrity before God. We must engage in every endeavor with the purest of intentions. Sincerity also applies to interpersonal relationships.

Candlelighting, Readings
Shabbat Candles: 7:30 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 16:1-20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15 (Ashkenaz);
Ezekiel 20:2-20 (Sephard)
Havdalah: 8:33 p.m.

All too often we allow our conversations about the important issues of the day to become mired in the partisan political climate of our country. Our approach to discourse must be one of good will. It is, of course, justifiable to criticize the policies and ideas of those individuals or groups with whom we may disagree. Jewish tradition certainly makes provisions for proper “rebuke” and admonishment [Lev. 19:17]. However, we must be mindful of our own imperfections. We often need to remind ourselves that we are just as susceptible to the limitations of the human condition as those we seek to challenge. Tahara/purity requires us to cultivate the all-important traits of patience and humility.

The Talmud states that rachamim (mercy) is one of the three defining characteristics of a Jew [Yevamot 89a]. One cannot be religious without rachamim. A genuine relationship with God requires us to recognize the Tselem Elohim (Divine Image) inherent in all of God’s creatures.

The most difficult yet well-known commandment in the entire Torah, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” [Lev 19:18], emerges from the heart of rachamim. This commandment articulates the very essence of mercy in that it calls upon us to treat others with the same degree of tolerance and compassion that we seek for ourselves.

The Psalmist gives us insight into the concept of tikvah (hope). “Be of good courage and trust in the Lord” [Psalm 27:14].

Tikvah has always been a primary source of guidance and courage for B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel. It takes courage to be hopeful when times are dark and gloomy. Consider the emotions and feelings of Jews during the Holocaust, when all hope of a Jewish future seemed brutally diminished. Nevertheless, out of that hopelessness and agony, we created a Jewish homeland. Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” literally means “the hope.”

Indeed, the recent 70th anniversary of the State of Israel gives us all renewed hope: the courage to dream, to infuse our lives with bold, new perspectives just as Israel’s pioneers did when they transformed a devastated, decimated landscape into a vibrant, prosperous place of fulfillment and life.

The ability of Israel to succeed, and indeed to flourish, over these past 70 years, despite enormous challenges, serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration for the entire world, a model for following our most noble and valuable aspirations and dreams, no matter how impractical or impossible they may seem.

The Jewish people stand as the embodiment of hope.

May we see the ancient ritual of KeToReT in a new and more meaningful way, adding inspiration to our own lives. 

Rabbi Shlomo Segal is the spiritual leader of Kehilat Moshe of Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn.