V’es habosem v’es hashamen, la’maor ul’shemen hamishchah v’liktores hasamim ... the spice and the oil, for illumination and for the oil of anointing and for the ketores (Shemos 34:28)
Last week we noted that the Torah forbade duplicating the mixtures used for the anointing oil and for the ketores. The Torah also proscribed using the anointing oil made by Moshe whereas there was no parallel proscription regarding the ketores made by Moshe. We also noted that these proscriptions were punishable by kares whereas illicit use of any other utensils connected to the Divine service was not a capital crime. While duplication of the menorah crafted by Betzalel and Moshe might be forbidden, one who did so was not subject to kares. Similarly, if one used the mizbeach for a barbeque, as distasteful as this might be, his punishment would be lashes and a fine for misuse of something sanctified. The question that we posed was why are the anointing oil and ketores different?
As a preface, I suggest that we first try to analyze the sins themselves; most specifically, what would entice man to commit these types of aveirot. Why would anyone want to duplicate the oil and ketores or use the oil prepared by Moshe? Netziv, in his commentary to Shir ha-Shirim, poses a similar question. It is understandable, he writes, why man would be tempted to violate the sin of ba’al tigra - of fulfilling a mitzvah in an incomplete fashion. For example, the Torah requires that one refrain from eating chametz for seven days. Man, either because of his distaste for matzah or his uncontrollable urge for chametz might decide that this mitzvah is just too difficult. Reluctant, however, to completely ignore the Torah, he decides to make his life easier by declaring that the mitzvah is not really for seven days but perhaps only for six or five. He has thus satisfied both his conscience as well as his yetzer ha-ra. How often do I, as a teacher, hear students declare emphatically that a law that they violate is not really an aveirah but simply a chumrah. They do so because they are reluctant to admit that they are doing something wrong and prefer the comfort of self-delusion.
On the other hand, Netziv comments, we have a similar proscription of ba’al tosif - overfulfilling the mitzvot; for example, a man who makes tefillin with five parshios in the batim. Why, Netziv asks, would any rational person want to do this? The Torah was obviously not addressing crazies! What urges would cause a person to do this?
In his answer, Netziv points to a psychological truth that I have found to be compelling. Usually, man sins because he cannot control his urges or because he seeks to limit G-d’s ability to legislate his life. Fearful of G-d, and essentially a believer, he creates a G-d who fits his own image, interpreting or reinterpreting what G-d says to fit his needs. However, there also people who become overly enraptured by their own spirituality or their search for a connection to the Divine. They seek to become holier than commanded, reluctant to allow things that the Torah clearly permitted. The prime example is the nazir, referred to as a kodesh but who must nevertheless offer a korban chatas for having chosen to deny himself that which the Torah saw as permissible. According to the Netziv, this was the basis of Shlomo’s failures, for he thought that he was immune to the inevitable results of this kind of search for spirituality. Shlomo took more wives than permitted, claiming that ani osif v’lo echta - I can take more but I will not be drawn to sin - but he was wrong, for ultimately they turned his heart away from Hashem. When man creates his own parameters of kedushah, he rejects the boundaries set by G-d. Although his intentions might be good, he is in fact recreating G-d in the image of man. In this, he is an oved avodah zarah, for he worships himself.
Why would anyone want to use the shemen hamishchah prepared by Moshe or duplicate the formulas of the oil and the ketores? Might we not suggest that the urge to do so is a result of a person’s mistaken need to assume a level of spirituality above that which he deserves. Think of the person who says to himself: “If I could take the oil prepared by Moshe and anoint myself, would that not automatically make me as holy and spiritual as the vessels and people anointed by Moshe? If I could but duplicate the smells of the ketores would that not make me the conduit through which atonement for Israel’s sins would flow?” This man might have begun his quest out of a true desire for spirituality, but he ended up being self-serving. His kares is a result of his having been reluctant to accept the limitations that G-d has placed upon him - a sin typical of the avodah zarah family.