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Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35

“Moses stood up in the gate of the camp and said,
”Whoever is for the Lord, come here!…“(Exodus 32:23)

Parashat Ki Tisa opens with a census and a tax on the Israelites to finance the construction of the mishkan (Tabernacle). Moses appoints artists to oversee the project and relays God’s instructions for a few more of its appointments. Then it all falls apart when the Israelites panic at Moses’ absence on Mt. Sinai and begin worshipping the golden calf. This violation of the brit, or covenant, causes Moses to shatter the luchot (tablets).

One of God’s instructions to Moses is to compound the incense for use in the sacrificial rite. The pleasing aroma represents Israel’s desire to do God’s will. Ki Tisa lists four ingredients for the incense (although the Talmud lists eleven): persimmon or balsam resin, onycha (apparently the excretion of a small desert mollusk), frankincense, and galbanum (Ex. 30:34). Galbanum is a surprising choice, because it emits a bitter odor when burned. However, its inclusion makes the other spices burn with greater pungency. The rabbis infer an important principle about community from this verse.

In today’s increasingly fragmented world, it seems more and more people simply associate with people who are just like them and distance themselves from people who are different. This preferred uniformity fears diversity, seemingly. The recipe for the mishkan’s incense is a reminder to oppose that tendency. Every community comprises a mix of individuals. Some are righteous, some are sinners. Some are like us, some are different. Some may be pleasing to us, others not so much. The galbanum reminds us the community is complete and at its most vibrant only when everybody is included. (Babylonian Talmud Keritot 6b).

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