Parshas Devarim

This week’s Parsha is Parshas Devarim. It is also known as Shabbos Chazon, being the Shabbos before Tisha B’av. This name is based on the Haftora for this week that begins with the words Chazon Yishaya – a vision of Isaiah. This vision of Isaiah foretells of the terrible calamities that will befall the Jewish people if they don’t repent and change their ways. Sadly, these prophesies did come to fall upon the Jewish people. At one point in this sad Haftora, Isaiah tells the Jewish people a very sharp message from Hashem. “Do not continue to bring a false mincha offering to me; your Ketores offering is despised by Me. What is meant by these words? Why, of all offerings brought in the Temple, was the Ketores offering singled out as the one that was despised by the Almighty? Are there not at least a dozen other types of offerings that could have been talked about? What is unique about the ketores?

Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, offer of the classis work Meshech Chochmah, offers a beautiful explanation. The Talmud tells us that one of the spices put into the ketores was the chelbana. The chelbena had an unpleasant odor. Nevertheless, if the ketores was brought without having chelbena in it, it was invalid and had to be brought again. The Talmud tells us that from the fact that the chelbena had to be brought in the ketores we learn a very important point. If we have a fast day, and we gather to pray, and there are no sinners among the group, our prayer is not accepted. For our prayers to be accepted we must have some sinners in the congregation.

Why is this? Rav Meir Simcha explains, that the chelbana teaches us an amazing lesson regarding the Jewish people. The chelbana, only smells bad when it is by itself. When it is mixed with other spices it changes and gives off a good small. So too, when there is a fast day we must include Sinners in our Congregation. If we do, we have the ability to change these people, to make them smell sweet. This lesson of the ketores is supposed to be applied to all our prayers, to include all Jews and make them smell sweet.

However, there is one catch. This is only when the sinners who are joining us are people who have each done different sins. One person who is found in a group of people who are doing good, will be affected by the group and improve. Even if there are many who need improvement in the group, they will usually affect upon each other. If one person is lacking in dedication, one is lacking in integrity, one is prone to ego, and a fourth is constantly getting angry, the fact that they are in a group will have an affect upon them. This is true, as long as each person is not doing the same bad thing as the others. Each person will be affected to improve in his particular deficiency by the group.

The exception to this rule, however, is when each person is doing the same bad thing. Then, instead of being affected by the group to improve, those doing wrong will simply strengthen each other, and not change.

This is what the prophet Isaiah was bemoaning. The fact that so many Jews were doing the same sin, made their getting together pointless. Instead of causing each other to improve, they just strengthened each others’ sins. This is a Ketores shav – a false ketores, where there is no improvement to the chelbana, but it remained its old self. This ketores was despised by Hashem.

May we soon witness the building of the Third Temple, the return of the Jewish people to Israel, and rejoice again in Jerusalem!!