First of all the Talmud describes a magefa as a situation where hashgakha klalit overrides hashgakha pratit. A magefa is a tsunami of virulence that sweeps through the city or country or in this case, the planet, and does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. In hashgakha pratit, Hashem custom tailors the circumstances of our life, based on our merits and our strivings, etc. Every moment is a communication between HaShem and our soul. But a magefa overrides all that and treats everyone as an equally worthy victim. That fact that will become relevant further on.
So I received this pdf of a kuntress by the Komarna Rebbe (R YYYY Safrin) called Adam Yashar, that is a compendium of prayers and recitations in a time of magefa. And primarily, what he has done is collected all the passages in the Torah where the world nagaf (נגף) or magefa (מגפה) occurs. And then he does the same for the incense offering because it is the secret of staying a plague, a tip that was revealed to Moshe by the angel of death himself (as reported by the midrash). This power of the incense offering is documented in the Torah.
In the incident where Korech attempts to usurp the priesthood, and a sinkhole swallows him and his cohorts alive, the people, instead of seeing this as a clear proof of Korach’s guilt and Moshe’s virtue, accuse Moshe of murdering Korech in this dramatic way, presumably because his ego was offended by Korech’s accusations of nepotism. In defense of Moshe, HaShem sends a plague upon the people and Moshe instructs Aaron to take the incense pan burning with incense and stand between the dead and the living. Aaron obeyed, and in that way, he stayed the plague.
So the Komarna Rebbe understands that the incense offering is the tool that we have in our toolbelt to resist (and hopefully even disarm) a plague.
And so the Komarna proceeds to elaborate upon all the kabbalistic shemot and yichudim that are embedded in the passages of the ketoret. And this is all very interesting and also very abstract.
But I want to drop down to the pshat, and talk about what might be so special about the ketoret that it possesses this power. And clearly, it must be related to the distinguishing feature of incense which is its intoxicating aroma that would catapult the Kohen Gadol into an altered state of consciousness enabling the most profound devekut that is possible for a human being on the planet (according to our tradition).
Now, I really am going to come around to practicality, but I also need to say that part of the incense offering’s power to defy death/prevail over death/to cause death to cower is because it activates (what are called) the ז’ תיקוני רישא (the seven brain centers that mark our kabbalistic path of inner awakening). The lowest of them is חוטמא (nose) which is (obviously) our organ of scent. It’s the place in our body that receives the aroma of the incense offering and processes it. And so the Zohar states (in Hebrew translation):
Through the smell of the incense the nose activates and contracts inwardly, till the odor is drawn in and brought up to the thought and all fuses into a single will.
ְהַחֹטֶם מתפעל בְּאוֹתוֹ רֵיחַ לִפְנַי וְלִפְנִים, עַד שֶׁנֶּאֱחָז הַכֹּל וְחוֹזֵר לִמְקוֹמוֹ, וְנִקְרָב הַכֹּל לְתוֹךְ הַמַּחֲשָׁבָה וְנַעֲשֶׂה רָצוֹן אֶחָד
The Zohar is telling us that the incense offering enters through the nose and traverses this path of awakening and (presumably) activates the (by some counts the 6th, by some counts 7th) brain center called טלא דבדולחא (crystalline dew) which is also known as the טל תחיית המתים (the dew that will be used to resurrect the dead). The idea being that this dew (this טלא דבדולחא) brings such an expanded state of consciousness, and is such a potent force of paradigm shift that it can actually revive the dead. So that’s the power of the ketoret itself.
But we don’t have the incense offering any more. We can’t wave our firepan in front of the corona outbreak…but we can extract the essence of its message and see how that might, yes, apply to the challenge/the magefa at hand. And for that I want to first look at the difference between the ריח ניחוח (the pleasant scent) of the animal sacrifices versus the sweet scent of the incense offering.
Rashi explains ריח ניחוח—the sweet savor of the animal sacrifices—as nachas ruach (נחת רוח) which, says he, is when a person expresses a will, a preference, a desire, a request and someone fulfills that request with willing and loving service. That is what produces nachas ruach: we wanted something, and exactly what we wanted has come to pass. The animal sacrifices, in that sense represent our mitzvah practice: Hashem has asked us for these 613 things and we fulfill them–ריח ניחוח/נחת רוח (rayach nikhoach/nachas ruach).
It’s interesting to note that in the animal sacrifices the fire causes the animal to disintegrate, whereas in the incense offering the fire releases the hidden beauty of the barks and resins. Each ingredient makes its own unique contribution (which then wafts into the others and produces a combined scent that is greater than the sum of its parts). The incense offering is more of a shared pleasure. Both the Kohen and (metaphorically) HaShem…they both enjoy the sweet scent. The incense draws them into is a face-to-face encounter of shared and mutual enjoyment.
Its kind of like the difference between prophesy and ruach hakodesh. Most consider prophesy higher than ruach hakodesh, but ramban, echoed by Rebeynu Bechayeh, R. Tsadok HaKohen actually consider ruach hakodesh the higher transmission. True, the prophet can say ko amar HaShem, certain that he’s delivering G-d’s word (which is not the case with ruach hakodesh). But in prophesy the seer’s personality must go underground for its human shortcomings would distort the signal. Conversely in ruach hakodesh there is a partnership. Our personalities are active, involved and essential. We exert ourselves below to try to solve the problem or answer the question…and that exertion creates the kli that pulls down the guidance and insight…i.e., the ruach hakodesh. If the purpose of creation is to actualize the potential of relationship then this happens in a most consummate way through ruach hakodesh, where we share the reverie of creative expression, of creative exertion with haShem.
The animal korbanot are Hashem commanding, and us obeying. The incense is the offering of our unique creative expression—of our using the resources and elements of our life to create a sweet savor, to allow the fires of life to release the hidden beauties of our soul, the creative fruit of our labors.
So in this sense the incense offering is a protest to the magefa that is trying to eliminate our uniqueness and individuality and reduce us to the mush of a vulnerable klal.
And so here we are, with the world turned upside down. Our first instinct is to do what we always do…say more tehillim, take on another mitzvah, or another stringency. Try to keep life as “normal” as possible. Try to keep things from changing. But that’s not the message of the incense offering which asks us to find our creativity and bring that to the table…beginners mind. Everything I know everything I’ve done, it may or may not be relevant to this moment. This moment is new, and it is calling for a creative response, tailored to the unique circumstances of my life in this moment, which is different from everyone else’s. It might share some features with theirs, but it is essentially unique. HaShem has turned the world upside down. He’s trying to shake us from our habits.
So each of us needs to assess 1) our resources, 2) our responsibilities, 3) the bases we need to cover, and invent a response that will work to make the best of this challenge. And I don’t think (that in most cases) it’s going to be adding a stringency to the practice.
Anybody who read the Purim teaching that I sent out this year, I would say that this is obviously a time to practice turning noga into chashmal. (hamavin yayvin).
I just want to end with a teaching from the Komarna (included below) that he brings from the Magid of Mezritch who is commenting on a passage from the Zohar that reads: אתקשטת בקישוטין דלא הוו (“the Shekhina is bedecked in regalia that have never been in the world before”). That’s the quote from the Zohar: The Magid explains, “Torah and Mitzvoth are jewels and ornaments that have already been in the world. [They are standardized and codified]. But when a person engages in worldly matters, and remains connected with Hashem, they are bedecking the Shekhina with jewels that have never been before in the world (for that configuration of circumstances has never happened exactly so previously), and this is (in the Komarna’s words) חשוב יותר (an even more important offering).
So here we are holed up in our homes, in circumstances that have never been before…Not for us individually, and not for us collectively. HaShem please help us tap into our pure creativity that is aligned and inspired by your ruach hakodesh. Help us to find the most good-serving, G‑d-serving, and spiritually productive option in each moment and to choose it with a whole heart.