Tag Archives: Incense

Practical Jewish Meditation

An illustrated section from Gustav Doré’s “Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law”

In this week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, we read how Moses goes up Mount Sinai on three separate occasions. His first ascent concludes with receiving the Two Tablets, only to come down and see the horror of the Golden Calf. Following this, the Torah tells us that “Moses returned to God”, back up the mountain, to address the Calf fiasco and its aftermath (Exodus 32:31). Moses then came back down to pitch a “Tent of Meeting” (33:7) where he could more regularly communicate with God without having to ascend the Mountain, and for when the Israelites would leave Sinai to head to Israel. Moses asked to see God’s Presence directly, and God replied that no mortal can see God and live, though He would show Moses His “back”. To do this, God asked Moses to come up Sinai one last time (34:2), where a new set of tablets would be created to replace the shattered ones.

When Moses descended from Sinai for the last time to present the new Tablets, the Torah tells us that “He was there with God for forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water…” (34:28) Moses had gone up Sinai three times, each for forty days, making 120 days total. Indeed, if one counts the days of the Jewish calendar between Shavuot and Yom Kippur, one would find 120 days, since Shavuot is the date of the initial Sinai Revelation while Yom Kippur is when God forgave the Israelites for the Golden Calf and Moses returned with the new Tablets. At the end of Moses’ three sessions of intense meditation with God, his face glowed and the people could no longer look at him directly (34:29-30). Moses would henceforth wear a mask.

The Torah motif of going up a mountain to spend time in prayer and divine meditation spread all over the world, and we find very similar descriptions in other faiths that emerged after Judaism. Buddha, for instance, spent 40 days (or 49 days) up on a mountain meditating under a bodhi tree to attain enlightenment, and also abstained from food and water during that time. Jesus is said to have spent forty days in the wilderness without food and water, and Mohammad purportedly received his first revelation while meditating and fasting for days on Mount Hira at the age of 40. Despite the fact that Moses was undoubtedly the first, meditation today is associated more with Eastern faiths, and strangely not with Judaism.

The truth is that meditation has always been central to Judaism since ancient times. In fact, it is highly likely that it was Jewish exiles who introduced meditative practices around the world after their expulsion from Israel in the 6th century BCE at the hands of the Babylonians. It is intriguing to point out that many world religions began in the century following Israel’s exile, including Buddhism and Confucianism, as well as the Pythagorean and Orphic religions in Greece. Even ancient Zoroastrianism and Hinduism were heavily influenced by spreading Torah ideas in the middle of the first millennium BCE.

Today, science has uncovered the vast benefits of regular meditation—everything from reducing stress and improving sleep, to boosting the immune system and accelerating healing, even positively impacting the expression of our genes! So, what does the Torah tradition have to teach us about meditation, and what are some specific Jewish meditative techniques we can put into practice daily to enhance our lives? Continue reading

Moses and Korach, Abel and Cain, Water and Ice

This week’s Torah reading is named after Moses’ cousin, Korach, and describes his rebellion against the leader of the Jewish people. Rashi’s commentary quotes a number of Midrashic texts to explain Korach’s motivation. Korach was a very wealthy and very wise man. Yet, despite being a distinguished member of the community, and Moses’ cousin, he was not appointed to any prominent roles. The high priesthood was bestowed upon Aaron, while the leadership of the Kohatithes (one of the major divisions of the Levites) was given to Elitzaphan, who was younger than Korach.

Upset by these developments, Korach gathered 250 others and protested: “…the entire congregation, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst, so why do you raise yourselves above God’s assembly?” (Numbers 16:3) Korach essentially accused Moses of nepotism: putting his own favourites in holy positions to rule over the people, when in reality all the people should be on a high and exalted level, as they are all equally part of God’s assembly.

This was a very good argument, and many were swayed by Korach. After all, God had said to the people that “… you will be a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Amazingly, Rashi writes that Moses himself agreed with Korach! Moses said:

“Among the nations, there are many forms of worship and many priests, and they do not all gather in one temple. We, however, have only one God, one ark, one Torah, one altar, and one High Priest, but you two hundred and fifty men are all seeking the High Priesthood! I, too, would prefer that. Here, take for yourselves the service most dear [to God] of all: it is the incense, more cherished than any other sacrifice, but it contains deadly poison, by which Nadav and Avihu were burnt, so be warned…” (Rashi on 16:6)

The Incense Offering

The ketoret, or incense offering, was the greatest of Temple services, and could only be performed by the High Priest. It is said that anyone else who attempted it (including the High Priest if he was not in the highest state of purity) would die immediately. The Torah already relayed the story of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who tried to bring their own incense, and perished.

"Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram" by Gustave Doré

“Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” by Gustave Doré

So, Moses told Korach and his supporters that he would have loved for everyone to be at the level of high priesthood. This is how God had originally intended it after all, and one day in the future it would be so. At the present moment, though, the people were simply not ready for it. If they indeed thought they were all capable of being the High Priest, Moses suggested for them to each bring their own incense. He warned them, though, not to forget what had happened to Nadav and Avihu.

The narrative continues with Korach and his supporters bringing their own incense offering, with the result being utter failure, and every one of them losing their life for it (16:35). Korach himself, together with his main supporters Datan and Aviram, was given a more severe punishment: they were swallowed up by the earth. Interestingly, this specific punishment was decreed by Moses. Why did Moses specifically want Korach to be swallowed up by the earth?

Cain and Abel

The Arizal explains that Moses and Korach were reincarnations of Abel and Cain (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Ch. 29 and 32). Cain had risen up against Abel, argued with him, and then murdered him. The text states that the earth had “opened its mouth” to receive Abel’s blood (Genesis 4:11). This time around, Cain’s soul (within Korach) again rose up against Abel’s soul (within Moses) and quarreled with him. Now, to complete the spiritual rectification, measure for measure, it was Abel that buried Cain in the earth, with the text once again saying that the earth had “opened its mouth” (16:32).

Water and Ice

Practically speaking, Moses and Korach represent two types of people, indicated by their names. Moses, Moshe, was a name given by the Pharaoh’s daughter, who said ki min hamayim mashitihu, “For I drew him out of the water.” Korach, on the other hand, has the exact same Hebrew spelling as kerach, ice. Moses represents water; Korach represents ice. The latter is cold, hard, and unyielding, expanding ever larger as it freezes, symbolic of an inflating ego. The former is fluid, life-giving, and always flows to the lowest possible point, symbolic of humility. The lesson here is for each person to emulate the watery traits of Moses, and not the frozen qualities of Korach.