Take the incense test

Two things would happen to the Levite guard who fell asleep on watch. He would be beaten by a stick and his clothing would be burnt. The latter punishment is a unique one! Why burn his clothing?

Korach, a wealthy and influential Levite, rebels against Moses and Aaron. He gathers around him 250 members of the tribes of Levy and Reuben to support him in his attack on Moses. They complained that,"The entire congregation is holy so why do you raise yourselves up above them?" In other words, Korach is seeking the high priesthood and his 250 cohorts are seeking the right to serve in the Tabernacle as Kohanim, even though they are not.

Moses then instructs them all to bring incense as a test to determine the justice of their argument. He warns the people of an additional punishment, a miracle involving the earth opening up and swallowing Korach and his immediate partners Datan and Aviram, should God deem their rebellion to be false. The end result was that Korach, his family and his friends, were indeed swallowed up. At the same time the 250 men who had brought the incense in hopes of gaining the status of Kohanim were consumed by fire and died.

The people then complain that Moses has killed God's people! Some commentaries explain that Moses was culpable because he did not warn the 250 incense bringers that doing so carried with it the danger of death. Moses had warned Korach about the earth opening, so why not warn the 250 about the fire that may come from the incense?

God is displeased with this accusation against Moses and smites the people with a plague. Moses immediately dispatches Aaron with incense, the same material, which then stops the plague and saves the rest of the people's lives.

Why, though, is their claim incorrect? Why did Moses not warn the 250 people? Maybe some of them would have refrained from bringing the incense and thus been saved.

Furthermore, one could ask what exactly was wrong with 250 people wanting to be Kohanim? They saw their brothers serving in the Tabernacle performing holy tasks and wanted to have the same opportunity! They desired sanctity, it would seem.

The question centers around the role of the Temple incense in this whole story. The first time we encounter the danger of bringing unauthorized incense was back in Leviticus when Nadav and Avihu died while bringing "a strange fire which was not commanded them." They brought incense. The people saw that incense brought improperly can bring punishment by fiery death. That was their warning. The 250 people should have known that what happened to Nadav and Avihu would happen to them.

And it is the same incense which Aaron used to stop the plague and to save lives. So what is the nature of this incense?

It has a few qualities worth noting. First of all, it is silent. It communicates through aroma, not through words and speeches. Our sages teach us that the incense atoned for evil speak. "Let something which is quiet atone for a sin which is committed in whispers." The incense gives expression to what is happening on the inside of a person, not just the outside.

Secondly, the incense has the aspect of unity. It is not made of one aromatic spice but rather 11 ingredients. Some of them are bitter on their own but add sweetness when combined with others. Our sages compare the galbanum spice to the sinners of Israel who, nonetheless, must join together with all of their nation to create the sweetest aroma. The incense represents unity.

Unity comes about when each individual does not look at him or herself as important because of who they are but because of what they do in the world. When elections come around, some candidates spend time and money telling you how qualified and smart they are. Others will focus more on what they plan to do. Does somebody want to be president, or do they want to lead the nation? Those are two separate things and that is a critical question.

When we focus on who we are as opposed to what we do, we create the conditions that lead to great division. Identity should come through actions and contributions to the world, not through ethnicity or social status or association or any external factor. If I am important for who I am, then others who are similar to me become a threat. Notice how Korach does not say "Let us be Kohanim as well!" Instead, he says "Why should you exalt yourself above the congregation?" Moses and Aaron should step down is what he is saying.

This is what the incense tests. Nadav and Avihu were exceedingly holy and their sin was that they knew it and sought to cement that status by bringing their own unique incense. The incense destroyed them. The 250 Kohain wannabes were not seeking the opportunity to do holy work, they were seeking the status of being Kohanim. The incense revealed what was inside them and destroyed them.

This is why the clothing of the sleepy Levite would be burned. If he were truly committed to honoring God by providing honor guard for the Sanctuary, he would never allow himself to doze. If he is just interested in the honor himself, then his clothing symbolizes that. That is why it gets burned: to teach him that it is not who he is that matters but rather what he does.

When a person is focused on doing good they will rejoice when others do good as they do. There will be unity. When they focus on being important, they will feel threatened and resentful towards other people deemed important. When we focus on contribution, not identity, we will contribute unity to the world.

Tradition, Values and Societal Change

The transfer of authority from Aaron as high priest to his son Elazar involve a miracle. The symbol of the transfer was the giving to Elazar of the priestly garments. Normally, when a person gives his clothing to another, he takes off the outer garments and then the inner garments. The other fellow waits to put on the inner garments and then the outer garments. But in this case, Elazar put them on in reverse order. Everything that Aaron took off, Elazar immediately put on. Thus, it would seem he was wearing the undergarments on the outside!

And so a miracle occurred, and when Elazar emerged from the cave where Aaron was to die, the clothing reversed itself. Many commentators question the need for this miracle. Why not let Elazar wait a few more seconds to put the clothing on in the proper order?

One answer I saw was quite satisfying. This was done to stress the importance of continual tradition. There should not even be a moment's break. Somebody must be wearing the garments of the high priest at every second. Tradition must be embraced with energy and vigor, not in a lackluster fashion. It would not be appropriate for Elazar to sit around waiting, he must eagerly grab the vestments of the high priest in order to keep the tradition continuous.

We can learn a lot from babies. A young child may become attached to a doll or a blanket. I warn you, do not try and take that doll or blanket away! You will see how powerful the toddler can become. Especially when bringing the child to a new framework, day care or a nursery, it is important that the child bring the doll or blanket with them. This is call they "transitional object." It provides a tremendous sense of security, and allows the child to move with confidence into unfamiliar surroundings.

This is the role of tradition. The traditions may be as seemingly unimportant as a recipe for Haroset on Passover, or as central as how you pronounce the Hebrew prayers. In any case, connecting to the tradition of your fathers and grandfathers creates a tremendous sense of security. This is, after all, who we are. Tradition may even supersede a better halakhic practice. Case in point:

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik once gave a detailed explanation as to why it is halachically preferable to sit down during the Kiddush prayer on Sabbath. Some have the custom of standing for that prayer, and Rabbi Soloveitchik felt that this was not the proper opinion.

The next Sabbath, the rabbi was staying in the Yeshiva. At the Friday night table, he recited the Kiddush standing up. His students came to him completely puzzled. Didn't the rabbi just tell them a few days before that it is better to sit for the Kiddush? "What can I do," responded Rabbi Soloveitchik, "this is the tradition of my fathers."

Now, mind you, standing or sitting for Kiddush is not a violation of Halakha. Nobody can say that they have a tradition to violate the Sabbath! But when faced with a question of a better halakhic practice or a tradition, tradition wins. This is because tradition connects us to Mount Sinai. Tradition connects us to the Jewish people in the Jewish faith. Tradition is the security blanket that lets us go boldly into a changing world, remaining ever young.

I think there is another significance to the reversed transferal of garments. At some point, the baby out grows the blanket. Does this mean that tradition is only important when a person is young? Not at all. What it means is that the tradition becomes internalized. The baby is no longer holding the blanket, because the blanket has become part of the baby's person.

There are two parts of a tradition. The external part is the physical action of the tradition, the preparing of the food, the performance of the ritual. The internal part is the security and connection to Judaism that the tradition brings. I believe that the outer garments of the High Priest represents the physical fulfillment of the traditions. The inner garments represent the emotional and spiritual connections.

At first, Aaron gives over the outer garments, the external symbols of tradition. Elazar grasps these and brings them to his flesh. Then he receives the inner garments, the emotional and spiritual dimension of tradition. These do not immediately touch his flesh, they remain outside of him. But as he continues to fulfill the physical elements of tradition, the emotional connection grows and comes closer to his flesh. Finally, he is wearing the clothes in order.

And once he has the external clothing on the outside, they become available to everyone else with whom he has contact. He thus continues to influence others to embrace the physical traditions of Judaism, which will, with time, become part of their person.

A responsible parent knows the time to pamper, and the time to step back. They know when the baby needs the blanket, and when to allow the child to proceed without it.

The children of Israel required water. After 40 years in the desert, they were getting close to the point of entering the Promised Land. When there well ran dry, they complained, and God told Moses and Aaron speak to the rock "and it shall give forth water." Moses, however, did not speak to the rock, but rather hit it with his stick. God immediately punished him by decreeing that he would not enter the Land with the people. What did he do that was so terrible, especially if it worked?

Years before, when the Israelites had just left Egypt, there was a similar need for water and a similar mini rebellion. At that time, Moses was commanded to hit the rock in order to bring forth the water. So Moses simply repeated what he had done successfully a generation before. So terrible?

Yes, because it was the equivalent of forcing the grown child to take his security blanket with him. When the Israelites were new, they needed to be taken care of. They had just emerged from slavery, and were easily frightened and insecure. They were putting on new traditions, but still lacks the internal connections and security they needed. So when they needed water, Moses achieved it from a top-down perspective. He hit the rock, and the rock obeyed.

Similarly, when the Israelites were attacked by the Amalekites, it was God who commanded Moses to put Joshua in command and to stand on the high place raising his arms. Again, a top-down response to a challenge. Moses and Joshua lead, the people follow.

But now, a new generation has already grown up, and their underwear is on the inside. They have internalized the blanket, they are secure and connected. All Moses needed to do was to speak to the rock, to show it respect and allow it to bring forth the water on its own. And, similarly, after Aaron passes on, the Israelites are attacked by Canaanites. This time, however, Moses and Joshua are not even mentioned in the fight. Instead, the Israelites themselves swear to destroy their enemy. They have, indeed, grown up and changed. Moses no longer needs to hold their hand, no longer is needed to be their leader.

And this is the historical process of the Jewish people. The peak of prophecy was Moses, but throughout the generations it declined. At one point, prophecy stopped altogether. That's not because the people were bad, it's because the people were growing up.

We have a responsibility to keep our traditions alive, and to keep our faith the young and vibrant. By embracing the physical traditions, the foods, the melodies, the special ways to fulfill the commandments, we start the process by which are inner security and connection becomes stronger. By embracing the old, we become renewed.

Our generations may look different, and may inhabit different worlds, but we must be grounded by tradition. Then we will be able to go forth into unfamiliar surroundings and find the proper way to continue fixing the world.

How to Move a Mountain

In the book of Numbers, the people of Israel are poised to enter The Holy Land. In order to best prepare to conquer the land, they request that Moses, the leader, send some spies in advance. Moses is pleased that the people are preparing to take possession of their homeland, and agrees to the people's request.

The result is a tragedy. 10 of the 12 spies bring back a devastating report, frightening the people into giving up on their dream of The Land of Israel. "We saw giants there, and we were like little bugs in their eyes. We cannot conquer the land." Only two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, tried to change the people's fears into optimism. Based on the commentary of Rashi, here is what they said:

"Is that all that Moses has done for us? Did he not split the sea as we left Egypt? Was he not God's messenger and assistant, helping us get the manna in the wilderness? We can certainly conquer the land, and even if Moses told us to go at the moon, we could do it!"

It didn't work. The people sat down to cry, and that date became a day of national mourning -- the ninth of Av, the date of the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem. God decreed that that entire generation should pass on in the desert, and only their children would enter the Holy Land. Until then, 40 years down the line, the Israelites would wander in the desert.

It's among the most difficult stories in the Bible, both emotionally, and intellectually. After all, Joshua and Caleb were right! If Moses, acting as God's chosen messenger, was able to split the sea, why should the Israelites be afraid of large Canaanites? Egypt was the dominant empire of the age, and they proved no match for the children of Israel and their God. Why the fear?

Playing devil's advocate, I will also ask why the extreme punishment? Why 40 years wandering, and why give a dark legacy to the ninth of Av? After all, the people were in a panic! It wasn't a premeditated sin like the Golden Calf! When a person hears that is going to be attacked by giants, it is reasonable for him to be afraid, is it not?

The answer is, if you are the Jewish people, it is not reasonable to be afraid. Being brave, taking action despite the seeming impossibility of the mission is the very essence of the children of Israel. Without it, their national purpose will never be achieved. Israel is compared to a lone sheep amongst 70 wolves. The situation seems impossible, but it is exactly what is required. The most destructive emotion to a person's sense of mission is the emotion of fear. And often quoted Hasidic rabbi said, "All the world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is never to fear!"

Fear bypasses logic. Panic causes a terrible mistakes. We love watching superheroes function with tremendous calm in situations of tremendous stress and danger. Deep inside our hearts, we yearn to have that courage and be heroes. God created each and everyone of us to be a hero, to not be afraid of changing our lives and our world. Think about the fighters in the Warsaw ghetto. They held off the overwhelmingly powerful German army, with small arms and guerrilla tactics alone, for nearly a month! That small band of starved Jewish fighters kept the Germans on the field longer than the entire Polish army had at the beginning of the war.

That's heroism, and that is the definition of the people of Israel. We must be a nation of heroes. The symbol of our mission was the Holy Temple, the place where Heaven and Earth met. What happens there? The spiritual perfection of Heaven enters the physical and imperfect world. It then elevates all who come in contact with this Divine Heavenly Presence. The spirit is always more powerful than the body. That is the core of our belief.

If you do not believe that the spirit is more powerful, then the presence of giants in the land of Canaan will indeed induce fear. And fear, as we have said, closes the heart to any reasoning. Moses's accomplishments notwithstanding, the people were afraid and would respond to no argument. Thus, they discarded the power of spirituality. Without that, they could never hope to accomplish their mission.

Great accomplishments come from asking a simple question: How to do it? Not "can it be done?" An attitude of "why not?" is the most can-do attitude, and shows tremendous spiritual power. So instead of suffering silent desperation, we should realize our tremendous mutual power to change, to make what our true essence demands of us come to be.