I cannot recall ever smelling incense burning in shul. Such practices in my mind belonged categorically in Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches, or in Buddhist shrines. Most of my own experience of smelling burnt fragrances was in the dormitory during my college years when coeds would use them to cover over the smell of illicit cannabis. Clearly the use of incense is alien to my own religious experience, and yet Torah in both Tetzaveh, and Ki Tisa describes the burning of aromatic spices, or k’toret as important and normative to the activities of the cohanim in the Mishkan.
The incense was to be burnt by the cohanim on the golden altar in the Holy of Holies before the Ark of the Covenant both morning and evening of each day (Exodus 30:1-8). Apparently this fragrant offering was of such great importance, that to alter its formula or content in any way would cause estrangement from the entire community (30:37-38). Such an alteration of the divine prescription may have in fact been the cause of the death of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron the Cohen Gadol (Lev. 10:1-2), again elevating the importance of these burnt offerings of fragrant spices.
But why would incense be so important to the worship of ancient Israel, when it appears to have no place in the Jewish worship scheme today? And how might we derive meaning from that practice for today? First we must acknowledge that we are living in a world that is separated from theirs by more than time and distance, but rather by completely different mind frames. Modern worshipers are part of a principally cerebral world. Our worship is dominated by articulated ideas. But ancient Israel was more oriented to phenomena and sensory experience. Their worship was enhanced and defined by sights, sounds, and yes, even smells. So the rising scents from the gold encased laver, was meant to accompany and perhaps define the prayers of Israel. This is why the psalmist could plea, “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice (Psalm 141:2), ” and the author of the New Covenant Apocalypse could use the same figurative language (Rev. 5:8; 8:3,4).
To help translate the meaning of the k’toret for today, I like use an acronym that gives us more than the formula for incense, but a formula for appropriate prayer as well – kedusha (holiness), tohar (purity), rachamim (mercy), and tikvah (hope).
kedusha (holiness) – Appropriate prayer must fully encompass all that is holy or sacred. When the community of faith prays, it must envision itself as set apart and sanctified, being prepared for the age to come. We realize that our actions matter and they have the capability of kiddush haShem, sanctifying the name of God in this world. Holiness has a sense of locality and proximity, and just as the Holy of Holies was the only appropriate place to burn the sacred incense, so we must create sacred space (synagogues) and time (such as Shabbat) to pray.
tohar (purity) – Prayer should be offered in an orderly fashion and from pure hearts. Tohar suggests normal and appropriate states of being for all of the created order. Every creation and creature has an appropriate state of being which is unique. This can also describe a proper designated state of being when coming into the presence of God. Nadab and Abihu had disastrous results when they attempted to reinvent the wheel and bring “strange fire” as we discussed earlier. The Shaliach Sha’ul often spoke of proper order to worship (1 Cor. 14). Jewish prayer in kind should follow a normal keva (structure) and kavanah (intention) to be pure. Without this keva and kavanah our prayers might be sincere without truly being Jewish.
rachamim (mercy, compassion) – Prayers without genuine compassion are faithless (Yakov 2:16). God would not even hear Israel’s prayers if they did not provide for the widow and the orphan (Isaiah 48). Jewish lore tells how Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov was late for Kol Nidre one year. When asked why, he explained that on his way to shul he came upon a home with an unattended child. Though he was expected at the Yom Kippur service he contended that, “In our prayers we often call God HaRachaman (the merciful one), an act of Rachmanut (mercy) is also a prayer.”
tikvah (hope) –– “Now faith is being sure of things hoped for…” (Hebrews 12:1). In July 1944, only a month before the Nazis captured her and her family, Ann Frank wrote in her diary: “I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness. I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too. I can feel the sufferings of millions. And yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come out alright, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.” Prayer demands that we speak into the world as it is with the assurance of the inevitability of a world that does not yet exist. It is only with the hope and trust of God’s promises that our prayers can be truly effective.
We no longer burn incense – but symbolically we can continue to raise a sweet savor to the nostrils of HaShem. We do so by sanctifying the name of God, ourselves and those about us. This can only be done by keeping ourselves pure and maintaining God’s highest standards. We need to grow in compassion and have pity on those who may not deserve. And finally by maintaining hope, not in pipe dreams, but in the promises of God and in the substance of the age that is to come.