Of Incense and Politics — Parashat Tetzaveh

Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD
6 min readFeb 24, 2024

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There is a strange juxtaposition in this week’s Torah portion, and precisely in the part we have just read- in Exodus 30:8. “And when Aaron kindles the lights at dusk, he shall burn a perpetual incense before the LORD”. Aron is commanded to light candles and burn incense at the same time. The smoke of the incense and the light of the candles are mentioned in the same verse and combined in a unique mitzvah. This is strange.

The light of the candles and the smoke of incense -as pointed out by Rav Soloveitchik- are two different ways to worship God. They are almost opposite. The candles are about light. They are visual; they have no smell. The candles we use in our religion do not smell, as did not those in use in the Temple in Jerusalem. We do not use scented candles in synagogues. But we use a lot of candles.

The incense, on the other hand, is all about smell. We do not use incense in synagogues — where, indeed, we use candles. Incense was only for the Temple in Jerusalem. The smoke from incense is not about sight; on the contrary, we cannot see things that are surrounded by smoke.

Even if they are combined together in the same verse, the light of the candles and the smell of incense are different sensorial experiences and, in our Torah portion, two different ways to worship God.

Soloveitchik explains that candles and incense symbolise two different ways to worship God and two different ways to approach reality. The light of the candles symbolises clarity and rationality. It’s a stage of life when we have no questions when we see everything clearly. The candles stand for our rationality.

On the other hand, the offering of incense symbolises what we cannot put into words: passions and feelings. The incense surrounds the Divine Presence in the Ark; it symbolises the mystery, the fear, and what we cannot control nor see. This is the stage of life when we feel we face the inexplicable, have no words to articulate, or cannot rationalise.

Combined in the same verse, these two ways of worship teach how we Jews relate not only to God but also to historical reality and -as Rav Soloveitcik pointed out with our own Jewish history.

There are moments in which we Jews look for dialogue and understanding. Moments when we fundamentally trust our fellows non-Jews, when we try to meet halfway, to dialogue. And there are moments when we must be more assertive and reject compromises and accommodations. The times we live in at the moment are one of those times. Times that require assertiveness.

Let me explain. Do you remember October 8? Not October 7, October 8: the day after the attack by Hamas, after the murders and the kidnappings.

I remember how we felt supported by so many good people that day. The public finally understood the threat of Hamas. But then such a feeling disappeared. Most of the people who supported Israel and who seemed to understand our good reasons are now talking about “ceasefire” and -in the worst case- “genocide”.

The word genocide is everywhere. It’s crazy. A panel of international judges, not particularly sympathetic to Zionism, have stated that there is no genocide in Gaza. But editorialists write about genocide, TV reporters speak of genocide, and politicians hint at genocide with innuendos such as “There have been too many deaths.” It’s crazy.

But there is something new. We Jews don’t care. Not anymore. I have noticed that an increasing number of Jews don’t have time, nor patience, anymore for this sort of nonsense. Before October 7, when we came across some anti-Israel speech, our gut reaction used to be to engage in a debate. We Jews love debating. Our most important book, the Talmud, is a collection of debates. Because we trusted (wrongly) that that criticism of Israel came from a good place.

Those people said they were not antisemitic but in favour of the Palestinians, and we wanted to believe. So we repeatedly stated the obvious; we always said that of course!, it is possible to criticise Israel without being antisemitic because we did not want to label people as antisemitic for no reason. We were so willing to help the critics of Israel to formulate their criticism without being antisemitic. We have helped the enemies of Israel to keep their good reputation with seminaries, classes, and training about antisemitism… (most of which were paid by us).

And now those militants, trained and educated with our support, are out there rallying the streets; they shout “genocide! genocide!” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — of Jews. And they harass MPs.

But after October 7, things have changed. Fewer and fewer Jews rush to justify Israel or to explain Israel. We do not ask for understanding anymore. The prevailing attitude in our community is summarised by slogans such as: “I am not a Jew with trembling knees. I am a proud Jew with 3700 years of civilised history”. “Keep calling me a Zionist. Nothing makes me prouder”. “You don’t get to butcher our babies and then tell us to show restraint when we retaliate.” They are all over the social media. We do not waste time explaining ourselves anymore. And this is a good thing.

First of all, because conceding to the bigots is never a good idea. And whoever babbles nonsense about “the genocide in Gaza” is an antisemite and a bigot. Can you imagine “justifying” the Ku Klux Klan with some talk about the high rate of criminality in the Afro-American community? Then why should we Jews talk about the “Israeli apartheid” (and other blah blah blah) when the problem is antisemitism? Can you imagine talking about “the provocation by scantily clad women” after a rape? Then why should we Jews debase ourselves with nonsense talks of “Zionist provocation”?

The times we live in do not require justifications or excuses. These are the times for Jewish pride, the pride of being Jewish and of belonging to the Jewish people. These are not the time to hide our love for Israel.

It’s such a great thing that an increasing number of Jews have learned the lesson. And this is new for us Jews in this Country. Politically speaking, the Jewish community in the UK has always preferred keeping a low profile.

We don’t like to make a fuss; we are afraid to rock the boat (or whatever English expression you want to use). It’s a deeply engrained cultural trait. Jewish politics in this Country is rarely confrontational. Perhaps the reason dates back centuries: the first Jews who were allowed to settle in the UK were readmitted by Cromwell on the assumption that Jewish family networks would benefit the Empire.

In other words, we were allowed to be citizens because we were thought to be useful. And if you want to prove you are useful, you do not raise your voice. This kind of Diaspora mentality, of looking for dialogue and avoiding confrontation, has shaped a large part of Jewish politics in the UK.

Well, things have changed. This community was founded by Jews who were forced to keep their voice low, but now it has become vocal, and rightly so. We have stopped justifying ourselves.

A time for a different kind of attitude will come back at a certain point; as the verse we have read, sometimes the world requires the light of the candle and other times -like now- the assertiveness of the incense.

We are facing enemies with bad faith. People who believe in the idols of Islamism, Stalinism, or totalitarianism. We are no longer interested in having a dialogue with this kind of idolaters. We are fed up with their nonsense.

And it’s time for the UK to take note.

NOTE: I have moved here: https://rabbiandreazanardo.substack.com/

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Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD

I’m the first Rabbi ever to be called “a gangster”. Also, I am a Zionist.