Raising Up the Physical

How to develop a healthy relationship with the material world.

Commentary on Parashat Achrei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30

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.

The ingathering of all these components into one blended spice offering on the holiest day of the year carries an obvious message. While the High Priest, dressed all in white, performed a sacred service of atonement, he brought with him the essence of plants grown in the dirt of many different places on earth. He did not “leave the world behind” as he entered the Holy of Holies; rather, he took with him the most elevated and refined representation of the entire world.

Contrast: Nadav & Avihu

This entire portion of the service of Yom Kippur and the incense is introduced with a reference back to Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, the High Priest. The service is described as being taught to Moses “following the death of Aaron’s son’s…who died (Leviticus 16:1).”

Nadav and Avihu brought an incense offering at the inauguration of the holy sanctuary. However, their offering was “foreign” and they died in a supernatural event. The Torah’s use of this introduction seems to contrast the description of the service of the High Priest. Indeed, the Torah makes note that the service of the High Priest is designed specifically, “…that he should not die,” in contrast to the way of Aaron’s sons (Leviticus 16:2).           

What exactly is the difference between these two offerings, that one would be considered appropriate and the other not? From a cursory reading of the text, they seem so similar. Many classic Torah commentaries offer explanations.

However, in our societal context, there is an extra lesson we can glean. From the understanding we have gained of how the ketoret represents resources from all over the world, we can allegorically infer a teaching about proper and improper use of the beauty and bounty of the earth’s produce.

The service of the High Priest is in response to a Divine command and represents a use of the physical world that is sustainable, extending beyond selfish desire. In comparison, the offering of Aaron’s sons seems selfishly motivated, personally oriented, and not in response to the Ultimate Will.

Their untimely death in the Torah can be understood as a homiletical warning of the inevitable result of the lifestyle based on individually-motivated, selfish desire. How can we measure whether our use of the environment is selfishly motivated or is a lifting up of the physical world as part of a greater plan and intention?

Messages from the Haftorah

This exact theme is accentuated in the Haftorah for Ahare Mot, a selection from the prophet Amos. The prophecy recorded suggests a misalignment with proper use of the world in several ways. Firstly, there is a description of excess personal consumption.

The prophet (Amos 6:4) speaks to, “those who lie on couches of ivory and stretch out on their beds, and eat lambs of the flock and calves out of the stall…” He warns them, “The Lord God of Hosts says: I abhor the pride of Jacob, and I hate his palaces, and I will deliver the city and the fullness thereof (Amos 6:8).”

Simply being over-invested in and distracted by material reality takes us out of the selfless and Divinely-oriented consciousness upon which proper use of the environment is predicated. 

A second theme of the Haftorah is use of the physical world where people hoard resources for themselves. Amos speaks to, “…those who rejoice over a thing of naught, who say, ‘with our strength we have taken horns for ourselves’ (Amos 6:13).”

He criticizes the use of personal power to accumulate private gain, for “ourselves,” but not for others, calling us to recognize, instead, the shared need and the common good. 

Yet a third theme is the explicit harm which comes to other people when consumption of the physical world is oriented around personal gratification. The prophet warns that destruction will come, “for they are selling a righteous man for money, and a poor man for a pair of shoes (Amos 2:6).”

When personal accumulation of physical property and the resources of the physical world are held as the highest priority, then even the most basic social justice is threatened.

While these external indicators are in themselves things to be avoided, they all stem from a common root of misunderstanding the role of the physical environment in the life of human beings.

As long as we see the physical world as merely a means to satisfy our own desires, the pitfalls of unsustainable living will continue to threaten us. Our drive to hoard and consume, along with our fears of never having enough, will constantly strain our relationship with the environment.

The more we are able to shift ourselves into a place of service to God, even in our consumption and use of the physical world, the more we will be able to attain a more selfless perspective, attune to the higher will of the world, and thereby be joyfully sustained and supported in our way of living. As the scripture states, our use of the physical should be sustainable “so that we should not die” both physically and spiritually.

Suggested Action Items:

Be mindful in your shopping. Try to buy only what you need, rather than simply impulsively buying according to your desire. You could start with just one shopping trip, or one buying decision per trip, and see how it goes

Investigate two or three products that you buy regularly. How are they made? What kinds of resources are used? Are they used in a sustainable way?  Are the raw materials obtained in a process of fair trade? Are the people who produce the products treated in a humane way? Are there different product choices you could make to help limit your environmental impact? Ask your friends to do the same with a few other products and compare notes.

3. Appreciate the beauty of what comes forth from the natural world. Try not to throw out items which could be repaired or used in a different way. Are there more ways this item, and the physicality with which it was made, could be raised up in service of the Ultimate Will? When it is finally time to throw something away, consider consciously acknowledging the service it has provided up until now. Then dispose of it properly.

Discover More

How to Say the Shehechiyanu Blessing

This blessing is traditionally recited upon doing something for the first time.

Simple Spatchcocked Chicken and Roasted Root Vegetables

Spatchcock is a method of splitting (butterflying) a chicken.

Roasted Potatoes for Shabbat

A Friday night staple.