Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35)

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, Israel — “And God spoke unto Moses: Take sweet spices – nataf, shelet and helbena – these sweet spices with pure frankincense [levona], all of an equal weight” [Ex. 30:34].

Suddenly, I felt myself awakened during a flight by a rather startling question. Someone wanted to see my tzitzit (ritual fringes). Still half asleep, I partially unbuttoned my shirt, showing the aggressive inquisitor the tzitzit. I thought that perhaps he needed to borrow them. “Good,” he said, “come join us for the Shacharis (morning) minyan.” Somewhat confused, I asked him what my wearing or not wearing tzitzit had to do with my joining the minyan. “You know,” he said, “you can’t pray with just any Jew.”

I was quite taken aback, to say the least. I reminded the zealot that the source for the requirement of ten people for a minyan was derived from God’s statement to Moses, “How long must I suffer this evil congregation…?” [Num. 14:27]. And the evil congregation to which God is referring is the ten out of twelve scouts who did not want to conquer the Land of Israel.

Since the word “edah” (congregation) refers to ten scouts, we know that ten comprise a minyan. Now these ten scouts are considered to have committed one of the most grievous sins in the Torah in their refusal to leave the desert and inhabit the Land of Israel. If such individuals are the very source for a congregational quorum, how could someone be excluded simply if he doesn’t wear tzitzit?

This issue finds a parallel in our weekly reading of Ki Tissa. One of the most unique aspects of the Sanctuary was the sweet-smelling spices of the incense burned on a special altar, whose inspiring fragrance permeated the House of God. In Parshat Ki Tissa, the Torah lists the different spices, and their names are strange to our modern ears. But stranger still is the Rabbinic commentary that one of those spices – specifically helbena – is hardly sweet smelling.

On the contrary, as Rashi writes, helbena “…is a malodorous spice which is known (to us as) gelbanah (galbanum). Scripture enumerates it among the spices of the incense to teach us that we should not look upon the inclusion of Jewish transgressors in our fasts and prayers as something insignificant in our eyes; indeed, they [the transgressors of Israel] must also be included amongst us” [Ex. 30:34].

Rashi is conveying a most significant insight. The community of Israel – Hebrew: tzibur – must consist of all types of Jews: righteous (the letter tzadi, for “tzaddikim”), intermediate (the letter bet for “beinonim”), and wicked (the letter reish for “resha’im”), just as the incense of the Sanctuary included spices of diverse fragrances.

Perhaps because we must learn to take responsibility for every member of the “family” no matter what their behavior; perhaps because what appears to us as wicked may in reality be more genuine spirituality; perhaps because no evil is without its redeeming feature or perhaps merely in order to remind us not to be judgmental towards other human beings, the message of the incense could not be clearer.

No Jew, even the most egregious sinner, dare be dismissed with mockery and derision from the congregation of Israel. Every Jew must be allowed to contribute, and only when every Jew is included does the sweet fragrance properly emerge.

In just under a month, as we sit at the Seder, we are instructed during the course of the proceedings to open the door for Elijah the prophet, forerunner of the Messiah. Certainly, opening the door for Elijah seems superfluous given Elijah’s uncanny ability to visit every single Seder in the world. Anyone capable of accomplishing such a remarkable feat certainly would not be stopped by a closed door.

Rather, what message does this symbolic gesture convey? I believe that the opening of the door symbolizing the opening of our door to the fifth child, the child who has moved so far from the Jewish People that he is not even at the Seder! We must go out to find him – whether is at a nightclub or a Far East ashram – and invite him to come back in.

No one, not the “wicked” child, and not the “invisible” child, is to be excluded from the seder, the commemoration of our first redemption. Parents and children must all join together in a loving and accepting reunion.

Permit me to conclude with the story on the plane with which I began. When it came time to pray, I choose to do so not with the self-selecting group of the righteous, but rather with those who had been rejected by the tzitzit-checking minyan gatherer, confident that they would be far more acceptable to the God of compassion and unconditional love to whom we pray!

Shabbat Shalom.

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