Parashat Ahare Mot

Raising Up the Physical

How to develop a healthy relationship with the material world.

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Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.

One of the most refined and holy of all the offerings brought in Jewish worship during the time of the Temple, and the time of the Tent of Meeting before it, was the ketoret, the special blend of incense.

The burning of the incense comes to its utmost expression in this weekly Torah portion of Ahare Mot, where it becomes the offering of the High Priest on Yom Kippur as he enters into the Holy of Holies (Leviticus 16:12-13). This portion can illuminate for us the Torah's insistence that we raise up the beauty of the physical world into spiritual service.

canfei nesharimMoreover, the incense offering of the High Priest is contrasted with the failed offering of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu, which resulted in their death. From this contrast, we can also begin to understand the Torah's perspective on proper and improper use of the environment. Furthermore, the Haftorah associated with this portion offers us strong indication of how we might apply this Torah perspective in our contemporary situation.

A Global Blend

The Torah indicates through the service of the Temple that humans have the ability to refine and lift up the physical world for spiritual service, rather than focusing on the physical environment as on object of commodity and selfish pleasure-taking. The ketoret in particular is a blend of spices from the far reaches of the globe, ground and burnt together for the unique quality of their combination.

God describes the special components of the ketoret to Moses soon after the exodus from Egypt: "And the Lord said to Moses: Take for yourself aromatics, [namely] balsam sap, onycha and galbanum, aromatics and pure frankincense; they shall be of equal weight (Exodus 30:34)."

The Talmud (Kritot 6b) explains that according to tradition there were 11 spices in the ketoret. Some were native to the Middle East: Balsam, also known colloquially as the balm of Gilead, was produced in Israel, most famously in Ein Gedi. The aromatic gum resin of Galbanum is procured from plants native to Persia, or modern-day Iran. The various resins of Frankincense are all native to the lands of Arabia. Myrrh, also an aromatic resin ingredient of the ketoret, is native to Yemen, Somalia, and the eastern parts of Ethiopia.

However, several of the spices must have originated in the farthest attainable locations. Cloves are native to Indonesia. Cassia, similar to cinnamon, is an evergreen tree native to southern China and Vietnam. Spikenard could be a member of the Valerian family that grows in the Himalayas of China, or it could be lavender, which is also native to Israel. Saffron, from the stamens of the saffron crocus, is native to southwest Asia, but has been cultivated for over 3,000 years. Also native to Europe, and much of Asia, especially the Himalayas, is Costus. Lastly, cinnamon is native to south India and Sri Lanka.

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Baruch Rosh Tzvi Herschkopff is a student at Yeshivat Derech HaMelech in Jerusalem. He learned for several years at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva, and holds a Bachelor's Degree from Brown University. He and his wife live in Jerusalem.