You shall make an altar for burning incense; make it of acacia wood…Overlay it with pure gold…Place it in front of the curtain that is over the Ark of the Pact — in front of the cover that is over the Pact — where I will meet with you. On it Aaron shall burn aromatic incense: he shall burn it every morning when he tends the lamps, and Aaron shall burn it at twilight when he lights the lamps — a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout the ages. (Shemot 30:1-8)
The tabernacle stands:
God’s dwelling on earth.
A breeze tugs the curtains
while candle flames dance
in the sheen of the gold
and the gloss of the wood.
And amid all the splendor
dwells the Unseen.
The fragrance of incense
suffusing the chambers
surrounds us, reminds us:
each in-breath is filled
with invisible spirit.
The aroma of spices
burned on the altar
infuses the emptiness
floating like prayers
by day and by night.
The question of why God wanted an earthly dwelling fashioned for Him has occupied the Rabbis throughout the ages.
In a commentary from 2005, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/terumah/5765/grandeur-and-grace-our-lives, Dr Ismar Schorsch asks, “How can we conceive of God as both transcendent and immanent? Our knowledge of the universe demands a Creator who is grand, majestic and remote; our insufficiency pleads for a God who is nearby and caring.” Dr Schorsch cites a midrash depicting Moses as astonished by God’s command to build Him a dwelling place on earth, “”Lord of the universe, behold the heavens in all their expanse cannot contain You and You say ‘Make Me a sanctuary!’ But the Holy One, may He be blessed, responded: ‘Moses, you misconstrue what I ask. Just take twenty planks for the north side and twenty for the south and eight for the west. And I will come down and contract My Presence to be with you below.'” (Pesikta de Rav Kahana, ed. by Mandelbaum, p. 33).
Dr Schorsch continues, “In other words, transcendence and immanence are not mutually exclusive…Judaism never cut the Gordian knot. It stubbornly refused to sever the polarities. The history of its theology is an unending struggle to be true to heart and mind, to a divine reality that is intimate yet infinite, loving yet beyond reach. The retention of polarities acknowledges the complexity of existence.”
In a commentary on Parashat Tetsaveh, from the book Hazmana LaParasha – Invitation to the Parasha, Rabbi Noam Perel addresses the relevance of the altar for incense, which, he says, represents the sense of scent in God’s tabernacle. He notes that fragrance may have an intense presence but is totally impalpable, and thus connects and fills the vast gap between the tangible and the invisible. Rabbi Perel adds that the altar of the incense was among the last of the vessels and garments described – that it essentially completed the labor on the Tabernacle, and he suggests that the incense fills in all the spaces between the sacred vessels with an ongoing presence that touches and doesn’t touch, that exists but is intangible, and hovers enduringly. He concludes that this altar strengthens the recognition that there is no place that is not filled with God’s presence.
The cloud of aromatic incense in the Tabernacle was thus perceived as a reminder of God’s invisible presence, as was the cloud that accompanied the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness.
The Rabbis attach special significance to the sense of smell as it says in the Talmud: “Rav Zutra bar Toviyah said in the name of Rav, “From where is it derived that we recite a blessing over fragrance?” For it is stated, “”Let every “soul” praise God.” What is something from which the soul derives pleasure but the body does not derive pleasure? You must say that this is the fragrant smell.” (Berachot 43 b) The Schottenstein commentary remarks, “Since smells do not enter the body in the same tangible form as do food and drink, smell is considered, by comparison to eating, a “pleasure of the soul.” ” The etymological connection between “reyach” – smell, and “ruach” – spirit, is noted. Also God blew a soul into the first man through his nostrils (Bereishit 2:7). The word “neshama” – soul, and the word “neshima” – breath, are likewise derived from the same root.
In an article entitled Secrets of the Incense, http://www.jewishmag.co.il/11mag/mystic/mystic.htm, Rabbi Avraham Sutton offers an exhaustive study of the incense offered up in the Tabernacle and later the Temple.*
He notes that the Hebrew word for incense, “ketoret” describes something that “rises up in circles, and whose aroma wafts and spreads” (Keritot 6b). He adds that the word has an etymological connection with the root “kesher” meaning connection, hence in Aramaic, ketoret has the meaning of connection to the Divine, so he says, “It has the power to elevate us and bind us to our spiritual root (Zohar 3:11a). Rabbi Sutton adds that there is an intimate connection between prayer and the ketoret as King David says, “May my prayer rise up as ketoret before You, and when I lift my hands to You [may it be considered as if I had brought] a minchah offering of my whole being” (Psalms 141:2).
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch also comments that the word ketoret means “bonding” and so he interprets the essence of the ketoret as the inner yearning of the soul to draw near to God.
*In the following parasha of Ki Tissa (Shemot 30:34) only four ingredients are specified. The Talmud adds a further seven that comprised the incense and describes the proportions: seventy measures each of balsam, onycha, galbanum and frankincense; sixteen measures each of myrrh, cassia, spikenard, and saffron; twelve measures of costus, three measures of aromatic bark, and nine measures of cinnamon. The spices were blended and pulverized and placed on the incense altar every day.
The galbanum emits a disagreeable odour when burned. This is diffused when blended with the other aromatics and strengthens the overall aroma. Rashi teaches from this that even marginal, disagreeable people have to be included in the community. This is emphasised in Ki Tissa when we learn that all members of the community were to be involved in building the Ark (Tanchuma 13), thus the two leaders responsible for overseeing the building of the Tabernacle were Betsalel from the tribe of Judah – the largest and most important tribe, and Oholiab from Dan, the smallest tribe.