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Weekly D'rash T'zaveh

The sense of smell is powerful. It can serve as a warning when you smell dangerous odors. On the other hand, our sense of smell brings back memories like grandma’s kitchen. Incense is a substance that when burned releases a fragrant aroma. Incense can be used to increase focus, reduce stress, help one to sleep, and for a variety of other purposes. In religious activity, incense has been used since the beginning of organized worship.

In our Torah portion, the Altar of Incense, also known as the Golden Altar, was placed between the Menorah and the Table of Presence directly in front of the curtain to the Holy of Holies. The purpose of the incense offering is not entirely clear, but we can surmise a few reasons. First, its location helped mask the putrid odor of the animal sacrifices. Another reason is that the smoke of the incense was a reminder of the ever-presence of God. In fact, one thought is that the pervasive odor and smoke throughout the entire Tabernacle was a picture of the time when the presence of God would permeate the entire world.

Another understanding of the Incense Altar is that it was different from all the other furniture of the Tabernacle. The purpose of everything in the Tabernacle was to bring the presence of God to the midst of the people. The Altar of Incense was a response to the presence of God, in that the incense gave honor to God. As a response to God, it has been understood as fervent and contrite prayer. We read in Psalm 141:2, “May my prayer be counted as incense before You; the lifting up of my hands as the evening offering”.

In the New Covenant Scriptures, the Altar of Incense represented encountering God and prayer. In the Gospel of Luke, we read of the significance of the Altar of Incense when Zacharias, the father of John the Immerser, encounters the angel of the Lord. Luke 1:8–11 reads: “Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the Temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense”.

Revelation 5:8 reads: “When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones”.

Revelation 8:3–4 reads: “Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the holy ones on the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the holy ones, went up before God out of the angel’s hand”.

As a priesthood of believers in Messiah Yeshua, we have a responsibility to intercede on behalf of others in prayer. The Altar of Incense in the Tabernacle reminds us of our altar of prayer. May we offer the sweet-smelling aroma of praise and thanksgiving to God. May we spend ample time at the Altar of Incense offering up prayer to God on behalf of those who do not pray (that is, people who are disconnected from God and who never avail themselves of prayer). Like the ancient priesthood of Israel, we have a responsibility to intercede on behalf of people. We are their “lifeline” to God. May we remember that our prayers are a sweet-smelling fragrance to God and an act of worship that is pleasing to God!

“O LORD, I call upon You; hasten to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to You! May my prayer be counted as incense before You, the lifting up of my hands as the evening offering. Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips”. (Psalm 141:1–3)

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Howard

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