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.

how to cancel Tisha B'av

When God saw the people cry at the report of the spies, he decreed that the entire generation would perish in the wilderness over the next 40 years. In reaction, the people came to Moses contritely, admitted that they had sinned, and declared that they were ready to go up to the land of Israel right away. Moses refused them permission, saying that God would not be with them and they would be destroyed.

That is what happened. They attempted to go up to the land the next day, and were chased back by the Canaanites and Amalekites to a place, or situation, called "Destruction." Why was there repentance not accepted? After all, they didn't wait! They immediately wanted to correct the sin and go into The Land. What did they do wrong?

The Seforno puts it in stark terms. Initially, the people have refused to go to the land from fear. They failed to obey God and Moses, and cried in their tents that night. Now, they again refuse to obey God and Moses by insisting on going up. This time, however, their disobedience is not because of fear, but because of rebelliousness. They are rejecting God's decision and Moses's instruction. They are repeating the sin of the spies, although this time as an open rebellion.

But I think there is something more involved. Caleb, alone among the spies, chose to stand with Joshua and Moses. He gave the other spies the impression he was in with them, but at the fateful moment, stood up and told the people "let us go up to the land, for we certainly can conquer it." Where did he get the courage and determination to do so?

A fascinating and novel understanding of this entire story is waiting to be discovered. And that is, that the sin of the spies is a repeat of the sale of Joseph. At the end of the previous Torah reading, we read about two men, Eldad and Medad, who were reciting prophecies in the midst of the camp. What were they saying? "Moses is going to die, and Joshua will need the people into the land of Israel."

Now, the spies that Moses sent were all princes of their tribes. Each of them was a potential successor to Moses. Moses knew this, and feared for the welfare of his disciple, Joshua. Just as the brothers had attempted to remove Joseph as a potential leader, Moses fear the spies would do the same to Joshua. Therefore, he prayed for him, "May God protect you from the plotting of the spies."

What Moses had not imagined was that the spies would be willing to sacrifice the land of Israel in order to prevent that prophecy from coming true! He did not expect an answer in the spirit of the mother who, when King Solomon said to cut the child in half in order to be fair to the two claimants, said, "I will not have him, and you will not have him."

But that is what happened. The sin of the spies was not simply fear of entering the land of Israel. It was using the land of Israel as a bludgeon against a fellow Jew. It was the extreme of selfishness, and it was the same sin that caused the destruction of the Holy Temple on that same calendar date.

The hero of the story of Joseph was Judah. He stood before Jacob and proclaimed, about Benjamin, "I am his guarantor. Demand his safety from my hand. If I do not bring him back to my father, I will be sinning to my father all of my days." Judah taught us the principle of mutual responsibility. We are inextricably interwoven with each other and must be together as a people. The definition of togetherness is not necessarily agreeing or thinking the same, but rather it is standing together as one people at all times. The four species we shake on Sukkot represent the spectrum of Jews, from the most observant and knowledgeable to the least so. Nonetheless, we are moved, we are shaken, but we remain bound together. The people of Israel, the Land of Israel, the God of Israel, all together.

My teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, of blessed memory, explained that this is the origin of our national name, the Jews. Jew comes from Judah, and expresses this idea of mutual responsibility and destiny. Yes, it is also because we are descended, for the most part, from the tribe of Judah. But that, also, it is because of this attribute. The 10 lost Tribes disappeared because they refused to stand together with the rest of the people. They rebelled, they seceded. They disappeared. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to the King, and to the Temple in Jerusalem.

If the spies were all rivals to Joshua for the leadership of the people, there was no stronger rival than Caleb. From the tribe of Judah, the mantle of leadership could authentically be given to him. And, yet, he alone refused to be part of that game. This was because he understood that what was at play was not who was more eligible to be the leader. The question was, do we stand together or not? His deep sense of areivut, of mutual responsibility, required him to stand with Joshua and Moses, and with God.

Now we can understand why, on that very next day, the people's attempt to go to Israel was an additional sin, rather than repentance. When Moses told them that God would not go with them, they needed to choose togetherness. They needed to say, "if the whole nation comes, we will come. If not, we will stand with the people, wherever they are."

And an additional point. The spies were right, Canaanites and Amalekites were stronger than the Israelites. But they were not stronger than the Israelites plus God! The spies had used the word "Efes, or nothing." If we go forth with nothing, they will clobber us. We go forth with One, the one God, in Unity and oneness, we are invincible. The Israelites who attempted to go into Israel the day after, went forth with efes-nothing, and not with One.

So, how can we cancel the fast of Tisha b'Av? By understanding the true dynamics of the sin of the spies. We need to choose to love The Land of Israel, so much so that no politics or arguments can get in the way of that love. We need to choose to love our fellow people of Israel, so much so that no disagreements can cause us to stand apart. And, finally, we need to choose to love God, so much so that if God does not wish us to leave the camp, we stay with God.