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Divrei Torah: The Fragrance of the Flagrant

Even traitors and sinners among the Jewish people have qualities 'as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.'
Kindness by Design – Parshat Ki Tisa

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost.

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”

– J.R.R. Tolkien

Who would have thought that these words of that famed author would connect to this parsha?

The “recipe” that Moshe was given for the ktoret (incense) was an interesting combination.

קַח־לְךָ֣ סַמִּ֗ים נָטָ֤ף ׀ וּשְׁחֵ֙לֶת֙ וְחֶלְבְּנָ֔ה סַמִּ֖ים וּלְבֹנָ֣ה זַכָּ֑ה בַּ֥ד בְּבַ֖ד יִהְיֶֽה

“Take for yourself spices: stacte, onchya and galbanum, spices and pure frankincense, they should be equal to one another.”

While the other spices are all sweet smelling, the חלבנה (galbanum), is known to be foul smelling. Why would G-d command to include such an ingredient for the incense in the most holy of places?

The Talmud, in Kritot 6b, and quoted by Rashi, explains that the equal inclusion of this unusual smell teaches us that we should not consider it insignificant to include the sinners with us as members of the congregation during fasts and prayers so that they should be counted among us. Seemingly, the success of our fasts and prayers depends on the inclusion of everyone, even such people.

In fact, Kol Nidrei, perhaps the most recognized prayer in Jewish liturgy, begins with a petition to include the sinners in our supplications of Yom Kippur.

The obligation to include חלבנה is not only a symbolic gesture. It clearly states that there must be a measurement of it equal to any of the other spices.

On a simple level, one might say that we include this bad smelling plant, knowing that it will be overpowered by the strong sweetness of the others, thus mitigating its inclusion. In fact, the lesson of the ktoret is so much deeper and should inspire us to appreciate the value and potential of others.

Rav Kook, Zt”L, says that the inclusion of חלבנה teaches that there is no such thing as something or someone that is inherently bad. Everything that G-d created in this world has the potential to be and to do good. Our challenge is to recognize those strengths and bring them forth. Rav Kook explains that the other spices of the ktoret not only neutralizes the galbanum, they are able to turn it into something, in concert with them, that creates a pleasant smell.

The Kli Yakar explains this in context of the specific obligation to include the sinners in our fasts and prayers. He offers that the inclusion is so essential that without them the fast may be worthless and even a sin. כל ישראל ערבים זה בעד זה All Jews are guarantors for one another. Therefore, we must ensure that everyone is included in our fasting and prayers. If we fail to include them we have failed our obligation.

The goal of fasting and prayer is teshuva, repentance, the return to the “factory settings” of the soul. These tools are so powerful that when performed properly, they can transform sins into merits. The inclusion in prayer of those considered “bad”, presents the opportunity to erase their past and return them to a pure spiritual state.

The Gemara in Sanhendrin (37a) expounds on this:

ריש לקיש אמר מהכא (שיר השירים ו, ז) כפלח הרמון רקתך אפילו ריקנין שבך מלאין מצות כרמון ר’ זירא אמר מהכא (בראשית כז, כז) וירח את ריח בגדיו אל תיקרי בגדיו אלא בוגדי

Reish Lakish says from here: “Your temples [rakkatekh] are like a pomegranate split open” (Song of Songs 6:7), even the “empty” [reikanin] among you are as full of mitzvot as the pomegranate is full of seeds. Rabbi Zeira says that the source is from here: The verse states concerning the occasion when Isaac blessed Jacob: “And he smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him, and said: See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed” (Genesis 27:27). Do not read “his garments [begadav]”; rather, read: His traitors [bogedav], meaning that even traitors and sinners among the Jewish people have qualities “as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.”

It is so fitting that this teaching stems from Reish Lakish, himself a former criminal who came to Torah and an upstanding life. How did he come to such status? The great Rabbi Yochanan saw his potential and embraced Reish Lakish, rather than distancing him. Reish Lakish, by personal experience, realized that there is greatness in everyone. It is simply a matter of recognizing it and then bringing it forth.

There is a well-known story, recounted by Professor Yaffa Eliach in her book, Chassidic Tales from the Holocaust.

On Yom Kippur Eve in the Janowska Concentration Camp, where the Bluzhever Rebbe, zl, and his Chasidim were under the command of a notorious Jew, Schneeweiss, a cruel and flagrant Torah violator. The Nazis took perverse pleasure in terrorizing the Jews, and even inflicting death, especially during the holiday season, since this had a powerful effect on breaking their spirit. These Chasidim were acutely aware that every day could be their last, and that the upcoming Yom Kippur would probably be their final one on this world. They went over to the Rebbe and asked him to implore Schneeweiss that they not be forced to carry out any of the 39 primary categories of labor, which are prohibited on Shabbos. This way, their transgression of the law on Yom Kippur would not be major.

Impressed by their request, the rebbe approached Schneeweiss, despite knowing that he had contempt for anything Jewish.

“You probably remember me. I am the Rav of Pruchnik, Rabbi Israel Spira.” Schneeweiss did not respond. “You are a Jew like me,” the rabbi continued. “Tonight is Kol Nidrei. There is a small group of young Jews who do not want to transgress any of the 39 categories of labor. It means everything to them. Can you help?”

The rabbi noticed that a hidden shiver went through Schneeweiss as he listened to the request. The rabbi took Schneeweiss’s hand and said, “I promise you, as long as you live, it will be a good life. I beg you to do it for us, so that we may still find some dignity in our humiliating existence.” The stern face of Schneeweiss changed. For the first time since his arrival at Janowska, there was a human spark in it.

“There is nothing that I can do tonight,” Schneeweiss said. “I have no jurisdiction over the night brigade, but tomorrow, on Yom Kippur, I will do for you whatever I can.” The Rebbe shook Schneeweiss’s hand in gratitude and left.

The next day he (Schneewiss) took them to the S.S. Quarters in the camp, to a large wooden house: “You fellows will shine the floor without any polish or wax. And you, Rabbi, will clean the windows with dry rags so that you will not transgress any of the thirty-nine major categories of work.” He left the room abruptly without saying another word.

The Rebbe was standing on a ladder with rags in his hand, cleaning the huge windows while chanting prayers, and his companions were on the floor polishing the wood and praying with him. “The floor was wet with our tears. You can imagine the prayers of that Yom Kippur,” said the Rebbe.

At noontime, the door opened wide, and into the room stormed two angels of death, S. S. men in their black uniforms. They were followed by a food cart filled to capacity. “Time to eat bread, soup and meat,” they announced. The room was filled with an aroma of freshly cooked food, such food as they had not seen since the German occupation: white bread, steaming hot vegetable soup, and huge portions of meat.

The S. S. man commanded in a high-pitched voice, “You must eat NOW; otherwise, you will be shot on the spot!” None of them moved. The rabbi remained on the ladder, the Chasidim on the floor. The German repeated the orders. The Rebbe and the Chasidim remained glued to their places. The S. S. men called to Schneeweiss. “Schneeweiss, if the dirty dogs refuse to eat, I will kill you along with them.” Schneeweiss pulled himself to attention, looked the German directly in the eyes, and said in very quiet tone, “We Jews do not eat today. Today is Yom Kippur, our most holy day, the Day of Atonement.”

“You do not understand, Jewish dog,” roared the taller of the two.

“I command you in the name of the Fuhrer and the Third Reich, fress!”

Schneeweiss composed himself, held his head high, and repeated the same answer: “We Jews obey the law of our tradition. Today is Yom Kippur, a day of fasting.”

The German took out his revolver from its holster and pointed it at Schneeweiss’s temple. Schneeweiss remained calm. He stood still, at attention, his head high. A shot pierced through the room. Schneeweiss fell.

The Rebbe and Chasidim could not believe what they had just witnessed. Schneeweiss, the former public sinner, had just sanctified Hashem’s Name, dying a martyr’s death for the sake of Jewish honor.

“Only then, on that Yom Kippur day in Janowska,” said the Rebbe, “did I understand the meaning of the statement in the Talmud: ‘Even the transgressors in Israel are as full of good deeds as a pomegranate is filled with seeds’ (Berachos 57a).”

It was the Rebbe, however, through his love and acceptance, that opened the door for Schneeweiss the flagrant to become Schneeweiss the fragrant.

The lesson of the חלבנה is as potent as its smell. By including those seemingly less pleasant into our focus, we can discover their potential, tap into it and transform them into the great people they were meant to be.

Shabbat Shalom

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