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The sacrificial incense that we read about in this week’s parsha is something with which I feel a special connection. And this is not only for the obvious reason that my family is named after one of its component spices (Nataf). Rather, since already in the Torah (Bemidbar 17:11-13), the incense’s unusual and mysterious life-giving properties is allueded to, it is something with which we all want a connection.

Part of the mystery lies in the incense’s composition. The Talmud (Keritot 6b) relates that the foul-smelling helbonah spice is essential to the other ten spices in the incense. From this it learns out that a righteous prayer quorum needs to pray with at least one additional man who is not so righteous. Of course, this is neither obvious nor intuitive.


If we analyze what the Talmud is really saying though, we may end up getting a better idea of what this part of the Temple service was all about. The sages here are likely speaking about a much deeper question than the need for helbonah. The comparison the rabbis make to sinners allows us to see helbonah as a symbolic representation for evil in the world. From the composition of incense, we are meant to understand that evil (helbonah) actually somehow enhances the good (the other ten spices). But how is this so?

I was in South Africa not so long ago and could not but notice the tremendous poverty encountered on almost every major street corner in this otherwise beautiful country. I am embarrassed to say that I was relieved to escape such difficult scenes once I left. But upon further reflection I realized that my exit from the country would only allow me to hide from the existence of massive poverty. It certainly wouldn’t make the lack go away. Rather, my exit simply made it less pressing in my own mind. Hence as uncomfortable as the daily reminders of poverty made me, it was actually better than the alternative.

If we go back to the Talmud’s example of the prayer quorum, recognizing the reality of imperfection forces us to confront ourselves in a truer fashion. As the Jewish tradition makes abundantly clear, when evil exists within our community, we all share responsibility for it. One can hide but that only serves to reinforce the very evil that we are obligated to try to remove. As opposed to this, exposure to evil forces the righteous to confront it and act upon it.

But there is even more. Exposure to evil prevents us from an illusively pleasant stability. And stability is the very thing that prevents the good from getting better. For, when confronted, evil is paradoxically what makes the world a better place.

As the Talmud (Berachot 17a) also says, the presence of evil is like the leaven in our bread. In other words, it is what eliminates stability. As such, it is just like evil. It has the potential to ultimately destroy the bread but – handled correctly – it also has the potential to make it more beautiful.


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Rabbi Francis Nataf ( is a veteran Tanach educator who has written an acclaimed contemporary commentary on the Torah entitled “Redeeming Relevance.” He teaches Tanach at Midreshet Rachel v'Chaya and is Associate Editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly. He is also Translations and Research Specialist at Sefaria, where he has authored most of Sefaria's in-house translations, including such classics as Sefer HaChinuch, Shaarei Teshuva, Derech Hashem, Chovat HaTalmidim and many others. He is a prolific writer and his articles on parsha, current events and Jewish thought appear regularly in many Jewish publications such as The Jewish Press, Tradition, Hakira, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Action and Haaretz.