The Shabbat that falls during the festival of Pesach has long been associated with King Solomon’s Song of Songs which is read during the morning service. This masterpiece, a cleverly written love poem, is a metaphor for the relationship between the Nation of Israel and God. Its sublime verses contain many allusions to the Exodus from Egypt during which God displayed unbridled love and kindness towards the fledgling nation. In chapter 3 (verse 6) Solomon writes: “You nations have asked, ‘Who is ascending from the wilderness, its way secured and smoothed by palm-like pillars of smoke, burning fragrant myrrh and frankincense, of all the perfumer’s powders?’” 

Rashi, paraphrasing the Midrash, explains that the nations of the world looked upon Israel with great wonder and asked, “Who is this great nation that travels through the desert accompanied by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night that protects them from snakes, scorpions and other dangers?” The nations also marvelled at the pillar of sweet-smelling smoke that rose from the golden incense altar and filled the air with a beautiful aroma, similar to a perfumer’s wares.

The Sages (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 3) view this verse in two stages, the first being positive – “who is ascending”, implying upliftment and advancement – and the second being negative – “like pillars of smoke”, implying that whatever hopes or greatness are referred to in the first part of the verse eventually ‘went up in smoke.’

One example of this was the family of Avtinas who produced the incense for the Temple. They were expert at blending the eleven ingredients that went into the mixture and the result was a perfectly vertical pillar of smoke every time the incense was placed upon the golden altar. The negative aspect of the house of Avtinas was that they refused to teach anybody outside of their family how to blend the mixture. When the Sages demanded that they share their knowledge, they went on strike, forcing the Temple officials to seek out other experts in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Try as they might, the foreign experts could not produce a mixture with the same properties as the Avtinas’ incense. The Sages had no choice but to approach the family of Avtinas to continue their work. They agreed, but only after their wages were doubled! When the Sages enquired as to why they refused to pass the recipe on to others, they replied that they had a family tradition that the Temple would be destroyed and that they did not want anybody to use the incense to serve foreign gods. Keeping the secret in the family would ensure that the incense remained a ‘Jewish’ item. Although the Sages looked upon Avtinas’ stubbornness as something negative, they nevertheless praised them for a most noble custom they had taken upon themselves. Whenever a lady from the house of Avtinas married, or whenever one of their sons married a woman from another family, the bride would never wear any perfume lest the guests suspect them of misappropriating the incense spices for their personal use! The greatness of the house of Avtinas eventually ‘went up in smoke’ when the Temple was destroyed.

The Midrash also finds in this verse an allusion to the bittersweet life of Elisheva bat Aminadav, the wife of Aaron the High Priest. She too experienced great happiness that unfortunately went up in smoke. The Sages remarked: “Elisheva bat Aminadav experienced five wonderful celebrations on a single day. On the first day of Nissan, in the second year following the Exodus from Egypt, when the Tabernacle was consecrated, Elisheva saw her brother-in-law, Moses, crowned as ‘king’ of Israel; her brother, Nachshon, was the prince of the tribe of Judah; her husband, Aaron, was appointed the first High Priest; her two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, were the deputy high priests and her nephew, Pinchas, was the Cohen in charge of the army. What an enormous sense of pride and naches she must have felt on that special day. But then her joy turned to sadness. Her sons, Nadav and Avihu, entered the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle with an unauthorised offering and were struck down. Her happiness ‘went up in smoke.’

Perhaps King Solomon is attempting to demonstrate the fickle and transient nature of the physical world. We often believe that the joy we feel today will last forever; that a husband and wife will always feel as happy as they were on their wedding day; that the job we just got offered is the ‘sure thing’ and that the industry we work in will last forever. The story of Avtinas illustrates that even the most celebrated and respected craftsmen of today can be without work tomorrow. The life of Elisheva and, in particular, the happenings on that fateful day, demonstrate that life can, and does, change in an instant. Only the spiritual world is constant and not subject to change and we should aspire to greatness in that eternal place rather than put all of our energies into physical matters, only to be disappointed at the end.

It is worthwhile noting that this concept seems to play a significant role at the Pesach Seder. The story of the Exodus itself is replete with ‘turnabouts’ – the Egyptian Nation, greatest of all civilisations and empires, is conquered by the very people they enslaved and the Nation of Israel, a small and oppressed group, are transformed from petty labourers into a ‘Kingdom of Priests.’ There is a further allusion to this concept in the Haggadah. Just before the passage in which we enumerate the Ten Plagues, spilling some wine from our glasses at the mention of each plague in sympathy for the vanquished Egyptians, we recite the words from the Prophet Joel (3:3), “Blood, fire and pillars of smoke.” Here, too, we remove some wine from our cups as if to say that even the grandest plans can end up in smoke. 

But the same is true in reverse. One minute a person may find himself in a state of depravity and suffering and the very next minute, he is lifted to greatness. The story of Joseph, which is the origin of the Egyptian exile, teaches us this principle. For many years, Joseph languished in an Egyptian dungeon, accused of a crime he did not commit. His plight seemed hopeless until Pharaoh’s butler mentioned to the king that an expert dream interpreter was in the jail. In a moment, Joseph was taken from the dungeon, shaved, cleaned up and placed before Pharaoh. His advice to the king earned him the title of viceroy of Egypt, and all this happened in less than 24 hours. We should never lose hope that our salvation may be around the next corner.

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!    

Rabbi Liebenberg

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for Pesach: https://youtu.be/YeJeLGaiIuY?si=kd7MmdHC4spG2W4T

Share with your community
No Comments

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.