On the south-west wall of our local shul in Yerushalayim hangs a large picture frame. Underneath its glass, parshas ha-Ketores (the section of the Torah that instructs us to burn fragrant incense twice daily), written in Torah-script on high-quality parchment, has been carefully mounted. On top there is a small inscription:
Whoever cares about himself and his soul should try with all his might to have the parshas ha-Ketores written on kosher parchment in Torah-script, and recite it once in the morning and in the afternoon, with great concentration… I guarantee it!
These words—and their compelling guarantee—are not those of the picture- framer, nor those of the scribe, nor of the person who donated the frame and its parchment to the shul. The promise was given by the author of the sefer Seder Ha-yom (first published in 1599), Rabbeinu Moshe ben Yehuda Machir. His work is quoted extensively in halacha. It is in his sefer, for instance, that we find the first reference to reciting the famous Modeh ani prayer when we awake. His promise carries weight.
When the Beis Ha-mikdash (Holy Temple) was standing, the Ketores ceremony was performed by one of the Kohanim. Because it conveyed the blessing of wealth, there was such competition among the Kohanim to perform its service that they were forced to institute a lot-draw to decide the lucky Kohen who got to perform the service, and receive its blessings. Measures had to be taken to prevent cheating. So powerful were its blessings that each Kohen got only one chance to do it. (See Mishna Yoma ch. 2)
Nowadays, to our great sorrow, we can not offer incense upon the Altar, and must suffice with its recitation. It seems, though, that when recited with proper concentration—and especially from parchment—it still carries the same blessings as did the real Ketores. It should therefore come as no surprise that twice a day—shacharis and mincha—that otherwise quiet corner of our local shul becomes a beehive of activity, as everyone tries to squeeze-in and get an unobstructed view of the framed parchment, to recite the parshas ha-Ketores.
While such segulos (charms) are wonderful, and one can hardly be faulted for wanting to perform them, it is important not to lose sight of other ‘segulos’ that are guaranteed not only by the sefer Seder Ha-yom, but by the Almighty Himself!
There are, Chazal (our Sages) say, 248 positive mitzvos corresponding to the 248 limbs of the body, and 365 negative commandments that correspond to its 365 main arteries. While the mitzvah of Ketores carried the promise of physical wealth, all mitzvos (including Ketores) provide us with spiritual nourishment. Some vitamins and minerals are needed daily; others are less critical, and can safely be consumed once a week, once a month, or even less frequently than that. So too, there are some mitzvos whose ‘nourishment’ is a ongoing need—these are mitzvos which we must do every day such as krias Shema (reciting the Shema). There are others which are less frequent such as Shabbos. And some mitzvos that we perform only once a year, like blowing the shofar. [The Alter of Kelm]
Is it possible to eat a full-blown meal and feel just as hungry as before eating? So how is it possible that after performing a mitzvah—one of the daily ‘bread-and-butter’ mitzvos that are supposed to provide us with spiritual sustenance and a heightened sensitivity to kedusha—we still feel empty?
Let us discuss the daily mitzvah which happens to be the topic of this week’s parsha, and the weeks that follow: Halacha requires us to remember our departure from Egypt (Yetzias Mitzrayim) twice a day; morning and evening. According to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Berachos 1:6), we are obligated not only to remember leaving Egypt in a general way, but to mention the slaying of the Egyptian first-born, and the splitting of the sea with its song. Thankfully, this has all been arranged for us. Between the third paragraph of Shema, and the emes ve’yatziv/emes ve’emuna prayer that follows, we have the opportunity to recall our Exodus from Egypt in great detail.
How would we feel if, after hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashana, we felt nothing at all? No awakening, no uplifting—as if we just heard the telephone ring? Or if we sat down to the Pesach Seder, and it felt no different than a weeknight supper? Of course these mitzvos are special; they come only once a year, and we put a lot of effort into making sure they don’t pass by unnoticed. Mitzvos we perform daily, like remembering Yetzias Mitzrayim, sometimes don’t receive the same treatment.
Suffering from laryngitis and a burning sore-throat, Mendel arrives at his doctor’s office desperate for something to relieve his suffering. After taking a look at his throat and tonsils, a smile graces the doctor’s face. “Mendel, I have just the right cure for your woes: Take these lozenges six times a day, and within 48 hours you’ll be a new man—I guarantee it!”
Three days later Mendel was back at the doctor’s office, his throat just as swollen and his voice every-bit as weak as before. “Mendel, you’re back… What happened? Did you take the lozenges I prescribed?”
Barely able to talk, Mendel managed to answer, “Of course I took them—and with great self-sacrifice! Do you have any idea how hard it was to swallow those big things with such a sore throat?”
“Mendel—you swallowed them?! You’re supposed to suck on them! When you suck on them, you draw out their soothing medication. But you swallowed them? Of course you don’t feel any better!”
Remembering Yetzias Mitzrayim is a powerful mitzvah that contains immeasurable blessings and nourishment for our bodies and souls; it’s one of the few mitzvos we’re obligated to perform every day. But, like the lozenge, we must savour its words and ponder its message if we wish to reap its benefits. If we fly through Emes ve’yatziv, swallowing its words and sentences whole in the rush to hit Shemona Esrei, and barely even realizing we’re in the midst of performing a mitzvas esei de’Oraisa (Torah- ordained mitzvah), then it comes as little wonder that we later feel bereft of its benefits and ‘segulos’. (Maya’an Ha-shevua)
The Gemara (Berachos 4b) promises, “Rabbi Yochanan said: Whoever juxtaposes ge’ulah (mentioning the Exodus) to tefilah (the Shemona Esrei prayer) is guaranteed the World to Come (Ben Olam Ha-ba)!” No small promise. Yet is there anyone that does not put ge’ulah next to tefilah? It’s right there in the siddur—you’d be hard-pressed to do otherwise!
The Hebrew word for juxtapose, someich, also means to thicken. Perhaps R’ Yochanan is telling us that in order to properly perform the mitzvah of remembering the Exodus from Egypt (and receive its blessings and spiritual sustenance), we must ‘thicken it up’, savouring its words instead of swallowing them whole.
Why were Chazal so insistent that this mitzvah be the lead-in to Shemona Esrei—the climax of our prayers? Before we stand in front of Hashem, asking Him to take care of our needs and fulfil our wishes, we must remind ourselves before Whom we stand, and the astounding ways in which He has helped us in the past. Only after receiving this healthy dose of faith- inspiring confidence are we ready to stand before Hashem and supplicate Him as a child does his father, even if we feel unworthy of His blessings. (See Ramban Shemos/Exodus 13:16) While we may know and believe in our hearts that Hashem is all-powerful and can fulfil our needs in an instant, contemplating this fact and even expressing it in words is such a critical lead-in to prayer that one who does so is guaranteed of being a ben Olam Ha-ba.