Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Leaving the Real Thing for the Real Deal

Parshat Ki Seesaw

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Who doesn’t like the smell of freshly made popcorn? Many years ago I remember reading a comic book (I think it was Richie Rich) in which a character was looking to make a popcorn-smelling perfume, arguing that the aroma was so beautiful, he would easily be attracted to it.

At the time it seemed a sound argument. But it doesn’t take much thought to realize that while the popcorn smell is one thing coming from a bowl containing popcorn, it might not work in the same way when on a human. Though we certainly have the benefit of being able to try and fail.

Which leads us to a most interesting prohibition, Mitzvah 110 in the Sefer HaChinukh, to not measure out k’toret (incense) for ourselves nor to make an aroma that is exactly that of the k’toret. “Do not duplicate the formula of the incense that you are making for personal use, since it must remain sacred to God. If a person makes it to enjoy its fragrance, he shall be cut off [spiritually] from his people.” (30:37-38)

Not only is popcorn-perfume not recommended, k’toret-perfume is forbidden.

Can it be that some things are so holy they are exclusive to a specific time and place? What if I want to imitate holiness? What if I want to get closer to God?

The Midrash Rabba on parshat Terumah notes in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish that the world was not worthy to use gold. So why was it given to the world? For the sake of the Mishkan and Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple). Think about how much theft and murder has gone on in the history of the world over the acquisition of gold. Because people valued something which was meant for a specific purpose, wanting it for themselves. This is also one of the reactions to the misuse of gold in the making of the Golden Calf. You used it wrong there, now you'll learn how to properly utilize gold in the service of God!

Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor comments on the k’toret rule that the same rule of non-proliferation applied to the anointing oils (Mitzvah 109 in the Sefer HaChinukh), because it is inappropriate to use things designated specifically for the king.

As Purim is this week, we'll take a brief aside to note this was one of the ingredients leading to Haman’s downfall in the book of Esther: his insatiable desire to be as close to kingly as he could get. When he told Achashveirosh that he wanted to be led through the town on a royal horse, wearing royal clothing and a royal crown, he was quickly put in his place. Mordechai, who ended up being dressed in those clothes, quickly returned to his clothes of mourning after the spectacle was over.

B’chor Shor continues: “The rabbis also instructed that a person could not imitate the shape of the Heichal (sanctum), nor a menorah of seven branches (rather make one of 6 or 8 branches), nor wear Shatnez (clothing that has both wool and linen) because the holy garments of the Kohanim contained Shatnez.”

Though aware of the prohibitions discussed here, it never occurred to me that the prohibition we have against wearing Shatnez might be because of the ingredients in the clothing of the Kohanim. Which came first – the instructions for these clothes or the Shatnez prohibition? B’chor Shor (citing the Rabbis) is suggesting the Kohanim clothes came first, and we are not allowed to imitate those ingredients in our clothes.

There is no prohibition against smelling the actual k’toret if one is near the Temple and the smell wafts along to one’s olfactory senses. But creating it just to know what it was like or to feel as if I’m there is prohibited.

It is true that there’s nothing like the real thing, but we are not always worthy or deserving of the real thing. There are more knockoffs of Dr. Pepper than any other soda. But none of them are the real “Dr.” except for the original.

We can talk about praying at home, or even making a minyan in one’s home. Of course there isn’t a prohibition! But comparing these kinds of services to the kind created in a synagogue, with a larger crowd, is an exercise in hyperbole. Even the reading of a Torah can only be done under certain conditions! Otherwise, we use a Chumash for our study of the holy text.

We certainly don’t have anything comparable to the Mishkan of old. Absent a Temple, the way we serve God and the trimmings of our lives that constitute holiness are much fewer than in the days of old. And while imitation is certainly a high form of flattery, in some cases it falls flat in comparison. 

Let us aim for holiness where and when we can. And let us remember that some things are meant to be exclusively designated for one kind of use. We can certainly manage with the kinds of life and spirit affirming places and props that are available to us.

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