An item that appeared in the Yated a while ago says a mouthful. “Western diet makes mice stupid” was the headline. “A review of numerous studies carried out on mice indicates that people who indulge in the high caloric, high-fat Western diet early in life may risk suffering from worsened memory, increased anxiety, and cognitive problems later on in life…”
Now that really explains a lot about what we are experiencing in America today. The economy was doing great under President Donald Trump before the Covid virus hit. The jobless rate was down, as was the price of gas. The attitude of America taking care of its own interests first was taking root. We were regaining self-respect lost during the Obama administration. Flexing our muscles in the Middle East brought about a more peaceful environment there, culminating in the Abraham Accords. Iran was isolated and falling further under strong US sanctions. With the advent of a vaccine coming up and the hopeful passing of the pandemic, the drive to make America great again could continue.
Then came Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and a cast of extreme left-wing politicians who are disconnected from reality. Have you seen the price of gas lately? Have you heard about inflation and the jobless rate? Trillions of dollars in stimulus checks with much wasted spending of money we don’t have can do that. And what about the turbulence in the Middle East? The new administration wants nothing more than to revitalize Iran, the catalyst for aggression there. And what about politicians kneeling to the mindless woke culture? It is insanity at its worst.
It doesn’t say much for our representatives in government nor for the intelligence of the voters who put them there. But now we have the answer. It’s all in the creamy thick milkshakes, triple layer burgers, and oily fries. It causes stupidity in mice and has done so to the American people. If it sounds like I’m being facetious, think again… There is a lot of truth to what I am saying. It’s not just the food itself, but what it represents. The food of the American diet feels good as it comes in contact with the palate and taste buds. But once it goes down the esophagus and into the stomach, the taste is but a memory and the goodness is history. Now the fat begins to clog arteries in the brain, a factor that eventually takes its toll on the body. And the lack of healthy nutrients leaves the body lacking for proper nourishment.
That is exactly what the American mindset is. Doing things that for the moment feel good while ignoring the negative long-term effects on their own personal lives and for the entire country. It feels good for politicians to dish out trillions of dollars to Americans. If you haven’t gotten your check yet, it has been reported that the delay is due to the lack of machines to print out the checks and the lack of ink for the machines they do have. It feels good for them to know that they will be repaid for their efforts at the ballot box. But the negative effects are already being felt, as people living on these handouts refuse to take available jobs. Why work for a living when you can get it for free?
It feels good to open up the southern border and be hailed as one who cares for the underprivileged. It is also heartening to know that those illegal immigrants will eventually return the favor at the ballot box. But what does the extra burden of supporting them do to the economy and how does it affect American citizens getting jobs? It doesn’t feel so good to go down to the border and see the dire situation that these people find themselves in. That is why the vice president and other government officials are loath to do so.
It’s easy to go along with the leftist news media and speak in favor of the “woke” culture. It’s popular to talk about defunding the police and put restrictions on them. But the stark reality is that this brings about a rise in crime, a fact that is detrimental to all of us. It’s most unpleasant today to take a stand for what’s right and get lambasted by the media and face the threat of being canceled. The current American way, much like the Western diet, is to do what’s comfortable, and we are all worse off because of it, both domestically and on the international scene.
Yiddishkeit is all about doing what’s right, fulfilling the commands of Hashem even if at first it doesn’t feel good. In the end, much like the one who adheres to a strict, healthy diet, the true oveid Hashem feels much better as well. In this week’s sedrah, we learn about Korach, who had it all. He was mega-wealthy and was from the most dignified Leviyim, the shevet that taught Torah to Klal Yisroel. In addition, he was one of those who carried the Aron. But despite all of these blessings, Korach wasn’t satisfied. He wanted more.
His desire was to be the kohein gadol. Either he wanted the honor or the strong feeling of closeness to Hashem when serving in the Mishkon and on Yom Kippur in the Kodesh Hakodoshim, but in the process of wondering about his personal feelings, he ignored what was truly right: the ratzon of Hashem. To achieve his goals, he was willing to start a machlokes, creating a breach in Klal Yisroel. Korach brought calamity upon himself and his family as they were cast into oblivion, swallowed up by the earth. As for his 250 followers, they were killed by a fire that emanated from Hashem.
The day after this tragedy, the Yidden complained against Moshe and Aharon that they had killed the people of Hashem. This began a plague that made them ill, a new threat to their lives. So Moshe told Aharon to bring ketores, incense, to provide atonement for them. Aharon did so and the plague had been checked. The Gemara (Shabbos 89a) tells us that when Moshe went up to the heavens to receive the Torah and the malachim protested that the Torah should be left with them in Shomayim, he presented a convincing argument why the Torah should be given to man. The malachim were forced to admit that he was right. They became his admirers and gave him presents. The gift he received from the Malach Hamovess was the secret power of the ketores, which was used here to save Yidden from further pain.
The offering of the ketores is a very powerful remedy to save us from misfortune. Here Rashi says that the reason it saved Klal Yisroel from another plague is because they claimed it was poison. It killed Nadav and Avihu and now it brought death to 250 Jews. Hashem said, “You shall see that ketores stops plagues and it is sin that kills.” The Zohar Hakadosh (Parshas Vayeira) says that even saying the parsha of ketores brings a yeshuah from plagues and evil mishaps. Throughout the generations and just recently during the pandemic, our gedolim instructed us to recite the parsha of ketores for shemirah.
There is an incredible Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 55:7) that says that one of the reasons that Yerusalayim is called Moriah is because of the ketores that contains “mor,” which will eventually be brought in the Bais Hamikdosh in Yerushalayim. It is clear that the ketores has potent powers and gives Hakadosh Boruch Hu tremendous nachas ruach. While undoubtedly there are many lofty secrets behind this, we can understand it on an elementary level.
The 11 ingredients of the ketores are fragrant spices that carry tremendous potential. But when left to themselves without any processing, their powerful sense remains dormant within. In order to extract these fragrances, they have to be finely ground and pounded. Then, when mixed properly and placed on the fire burning on the Mizbeiach Hazohov, they unleashed a powerful pillar of smoke that ascended to the heavens. This heavenly aroma spread all around Yerushalayim, all the way to Yericho many miles away, and could be detected many years after the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed.
Now let’s imagine that these ingredients had feelings and the ability to express them. What would they say as they are being chopped, ground, and pounded? Oy vey. Ay, it’s very painful! But in the end, their true inner potential would be harvested, bringing much nachas ruach to Hashem, blessings for Klal Yisroel, fulfilling their true purpose in being created.
We know that a korban represents the person who brings it. The Ramban says that when one brings a sacrifice, he should think that it is he who should really be brought on the mizbeiach, but Hashem gave him the opportunity to bring an animal in his stead. If so, the ketores brought on the mizbeiach represents Klal Yisroel, their tremendous potential, and the unleashing of these powers.
The true oveid Hashem works on perfecting himself. He does this by dissecting his life, his middos, and everything about him, analyzing how to improve. But often, even the tzaddik, in order to realize his full potential, must undergo a grinding and pounding much like the ketores, the suffering of hardships to release his true fragrance. Avrohom Avinu had already accomplished so much when Hashem told him to leave his land, his birthplace, and his father’s home. He had already spread the name of Hashem to many around him, being mekadeish Sheim Shomayim when cast into the furnace by Nimrod, and yet Hashem told him that to realize his full potential, he must become a wanderer.
The Medrash (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:22) tells us: “What was Avrohom comparable to? To a bottle of perfume that lay in a corner, not emitting its fragrance. A person came and moved it from its place, shaking it up, and its aroma emanated. So too, Hashem told Avrohom, ‘You have many good deeds and mitzvos. Move around in the world and My Name will be spread.’”
This happened with Yaakov Avinu, as well. Already when he came to Yitzchok to receive the brachos, it says, “He (Yitzchok Avinu) smelled the fragrance of his garments and blessed him. He said, ‘See the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field which Hashem had blessed’” (Bereishis 27:27). Rashi says that this was the smell of Gan Eden. It was attained through years of toil in the tents of Shem V’Eiver and only became more powerful with the hardships Yaakov overcame throughout his lifetime. The avos hakedoshim and many tzaddikim of our illustrious history were the living embodiment of the ketores. After dissecting themselves and taking a grounding and pounding, they emitted a heavenly fragrance that permeated the entire world, their impact felt to this day.
However, not only the tzaddikim are able to emit these powerful aromas. Even the simple people and even the sinners amongst us, when put under pressure, are able to find that “pintele Yid” deep within and rise to the greatest heights. On the posuk of “vayorach es reiach begodov – he smells the fragrance of his garments,” the Medrash tells us that the word begodov can also be read as bogdav, meaning those unfaithful to Hashem. Yitzchok Avinu saw with ruach hakodesh two instances during the reign of the Yevanim when Jewish Hellenists under pressure died al kiddush Hashem. Hashem asks, “Who is ascending from the desert like palm-like pillars of smoke, burning fragrant myrrh and frankincense, of all the perfumer’s powders?” (Shir Hashirim 3:6).
And so, when the ketores was brought to Hashem, it evoked memories of the avos hakedoshim, who were pounded by nisyonos, and yet they persevered in producing a wonderful fragrance. Hashem would look into the future and see the Asarah Harugei Malchus, amongst them Rabi Akiva, whose flesh was being scraped off by the Romans because he taught Torah in public. He saw the Baalei HaTosafos deeply engrossed in Perek Merubah, fully aware that very soon, the Crusaders would come and take their lives. He saw the simple Yidden in Spain during the Inquisition suffering the cruelest torture, yet remaining faithful to Hashem.
He saw Rav Elchonon Wasserman being taken from his Gemara in Kovna and marched off to the Ninth Fort, where he died al kiddush Hashem. He saw the entire kehillah of Kelm marching to their deaths at the hands of the Nazis ym”sh, singing the Yom Tovdike Adon Olam. He heard the simple Yidden within the gas chambers of Auschwitz screaming out their last words, “Shema Yisroel.” And yes he saw all of us, living in this dark golus right before Moshiach, amidst a society that has sunk to the worst tumah, a generation that even the greatest Amora, Rabi Yochonon, wanted to avoid. We witness many tragedies and yet we continue hugging and cleaving to Him.
This is the essence of the ketores and why it brings such blessing to Klal Yisroel. What we must learn from this is that our success is attained not by what feels good or instant gratification. To the contrary, we must focus on doing what’s right in the eyes of Hashem, although it might conflict with our own human inclination. Secondly, we are not to be put off by the hardships, for it is perseverance in clearing the hurdles that makes us great.
In this merit, may we see the coming of Moshiach soon, when we will merit to actually bring the ketores on the mizbeiach.