July 17, 2024
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The Sweet Smell of Success

In the first seven pesukim of parshat Terumah, there are either things missing or things that do not belong.

The parsha begins by identifying items needed for constructing the Mishkan and the Kohanim’s garments. Moshe is told to take: “gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson wool; linen and goat hair; ram skins dyed red, tachash skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the incense; shoham stones and filling stones for the ephod and for the choshen.” (25:1-7). Oil for lighting the Menorah and spices for burning on the Golden Incense altar should not appear in this list as they are not necessary for the construction of the Mishkan. If you say that these items are included because they are necessary for the Mishkan’s operation, then we must ask why flour, wine and various animals needed for the korbanot are not also included in the list.

The services of Menorah and the burning of the incense differ from most of the other rituals in the Mishkan in that the Kohanim do not receive a tangible benefit. There is light and fragrance, but none of these leave the holy precincts. Most other aspects of the Mishkan service result in the Kohanim, or a person bringing a korban, receiving some physical benefit. Not so with the Menorah and incense. Including the oil for lighting and the spices for incense is intended to teach us about the Mishkan’s core purpose.

The purpose of the Mishkan is not to provide a temporal physical pleasure or benefit. The Mishkan’s primary purpose is to enable us to more fully experience the Divine presence. Although Hashem is present throughout the world, He was more tangibly felt in the Mishkan and the Beit HaMikdash. This fact is emphasized for us by the mention of oil for lighting and spices for incense, indirect references to the Menorah and the Golden Incense Altar.

The menorah is representative of Torah—the thoughts of G-d rendered into the language of Man. The incense generates a cloud evocative the cloud that appeared when the divine presence filled the Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash. (Parshat Pekudei 40:34-36 and Melachim I:8:10-11). Thus, oil for the Menorah and spices for the incense are mentioned here to focus our attention on the Mishkan’s central purpose. To include other aspects of the Divine service, elements necessary for the Mincha offering, for wine libations, for animal sacrifices, would diminish this message.

The foregoing, however, raises another question. In our Parsha we have instructions to construct, and a description of, the Menorah. The same information concerning the Golden Incense altar is not provided until the end of the following parsha. Why are these instructions delayed?

The Torah is always accessible to us. It was given to us by Hashem through Moshe as it is the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob. It is represented by the Menorah. As noted above, the cloud of incense brings to mind the cloud that often accompanied the Divine presence. Encountering the Divine requires preparation. We need to develop ourselves, and prepare for the experience. Thus, we find that the description of the Golden Incense altar does not appear immediately in our parsha. We first have the descriptions of all the other elements of the Mishkan. This includes the Menorah and the Aron HaKodesh, in which was contained not only the two tablets but ultimately a Torah scroll written by Moshe himself. Thereafter, in next week’s parsha, is a description of the clothing to be worn by the Kohanim when performing the Divine service. These instructions are followed by details of the korbanot Aron and his sons are to bring on the day of their dedication. Only after these things are set forth will we have mention of the Golden Incense altar. This is to teach us that we must prepare for our encounter with the Divine. We must prepare both as a community, as represented by the terumah brought by the entire congregation, and as individuals, as represented by the individual garments worn by the Kohanim in the korbanot that Aron and his sons brought.

The structure of this week’s parsha and next week’s is a pedagogical exercise. Placing a description of the Golden Incense altar only after describing the Kohanim’s garb and their offerings teaches the need for personal preparation to appreciate the Divine. This appreciation of the Divine, however, need not be restricted to the Mishkan. Rav Soloveitchik often notes how Hashem is readily discernible in nature, yet we take these signs for granted. Indeed, in the “Modim” prayer, recited three times daily, we comment on “the miracles that are daily with us.” The Hebrew word for miracle is “nes,” relating to the word for a flag or banner. In other words—a sign. Thus, even in the absence of the incense offering, we can, on a daily basis, see Hashem’s signs and meet Him if we properly prepare ourselves through exploration of His Torah and performance of the mitzvot contained therein. Which means that even absent the incense offering, we will enjoy the sweet smell of success.


William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors of Arts in Religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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