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Parshat Tzav

Mar 18, 2011

Purim - The Aroma of Life

The gemora in Meseches Chullin poses four questions. Where is Moshe Rabeinu to be found in the Torah, where is Haman, where is Mordechai, and where is Esther? 1

Moshe Rabeinu is found in the portion of the Torah following the flood. The posuk says, “Bishegam hu basar2 (inasmuch as he is mere flesh). The gematria of bishegam equals 345, which is the numerical equivalent of Moshe’s name.

Haman is found in Parshas Breishis, after Adam HaRishon partook of the forbidden fruit. Hashem asks him, “Hamin ha’eitz?” 3 (Did you eat from the tree?). This is an allusion to Haman’s fate, to be hung from a tree.

Mordechai is found among the incense of the ketores, mor deror 4 (Myrrh)

And when Hashem foretells of the galus that awaits us, He says, “Va’anochi hastir astir panay” (And I will hide, will hide, my face). 5

From the very question of the gemora, it is evident that gemora possesses foreknowledge that the names are to be found. Moshe, Haman, Mordechai, and Esther are figures that the entire existence of the world depends upon. Therefore, they must be there. Haman represents the challenge that Mordechai and Esther overcame due to their connection to Toras Moshe. The world was created for this confrontation.

It would be understandable that the gemora is searching for a Torah source for Haman, Mordechai, and Esther. But why search for Moshe Rabeinu? The Torah is replete with mentions of his name.

It stands to conclude that the aim of the gemora is not to find a mere mention of the individual’s names. It is searching for their source. The root of Moshe Rabeinu, his ability to redeem mankind from its pre-mabul state, was brought into the world when Noach and his sons emerged from the teivah. Moshe’s soul was there, in potential form, amongst his ancestors, Noach and Shem.

It is completely understandable why Haman’s root is to be found amongst the mention of the Eitz Hada’as. Haman is the root of all evil. He sought to eliminate any presence of G-d’s people from the earth

Mordechai is rooted in the incense of the ketores.


What is it about Mordechai that likens him to the ketores incense?

Why is the existence of the entire creation contingent on this comparison?

Background/Deeper Understanding

The word ketores is related to the Aramaic word kitra. Kitra means a “knot”. When Hashem created Adam HaRishon he breathed the breath of life into his nostrils. The point of contact, the knot, between the body and the life-granting breath of life is through the sense of smell. 6 It is for this reason that the distinction between life and death is detected by the odor that is given off. The aroma of a newborn baby is filled with life, with freshness, while the odor of a deceased human body is putrid. 7

Mordechai had one all consuming connection. He viewed everything through the prism of G-d. Social factors did not intrude upon his perspective.

Achashveirosh celebrated the culmination of three years of his reign. In the eyes of the people and the wise men, to participate was life, to be absent would spell certain death. It would be a show of disloyalty to refrain from attending.

Mordechai saw otherwise. He attempted to drive people away from the celebration. 8 What would likely happen to him if he were found out? The danger didn’t enter his calculations.

An edict was issued. All were to bow before the King’s exilarch, Haman. Failure to do so would place one in jeopardy of losing one’s life.

Mordechai saw fit to act otherwise. In a public display of disobedience, he defied the explicit command of the king.

To follow Mordechai is to follow death. To oppose him meant life, or so it would seem.

Esther was known by another name, Hadassa. The hadas is the myrtle branch that we take along with the lulav on Succos. It is known for its pleasant aroma. The gemora states that one who takes the lulav along with the hadas on Succos is as if he built an altar and offered upon it a sacrifice. 9 The hadas is referred to as a hoshana (salvation). 10 Why is the hadas singled out for this distinction from all the other species? The hadas grows in the shape of a braid. It is symbolic of the braid or knot between Hashem and his people. It is a way to come close, and is equal to a korban. 11 Esther is a fitting wife for Mordechai. She possessed the same qualities.

The Vilna Gaon tells us that when Esther approached Achashveirosh to beseech him for the life of her people, although in a physical sense she was standing before him, in reality she was far, far away. She was focused on the place of the Holy of Holies and she stood there, in front of her king, Hashem, and was speaking only to him. When Achashveirosh queried, “Who is the man who has plotted such despicable evil?” She attempted to point towards Achashveirosh. Miraculously, an angel redirected her hand. She was so focused on her bond with Hashem, that she was not at all cognizant of where her physical self was situated. She saw with clarity that life lay in the direction of Hashem, and not in her plea to Achashveirosh. Her bond with Hashem was total and complete. 12

The gemora in Sanhedrin tells us that Mashiach has the ability of judging by the sense of smell. 13 His connection to the source of life is complete and so, his sense of smell is sensitive to the presence of death, even a death that is hidden from the eyes. Those, who don’t have this total connection, dwell among death on a constant basis, and are accustomed and numbed to the smell of death. 14


When Hashem gave the command to create the Mishkan/Mikdash, He brought into the world a way to connect to life. The service of the offering of the ketores would serve as the manner that G-d’s pleasant smelling breath of life would enter the world. How would the world survive in the absence of the ketores service, when the Beis HaMikdash no longer was present among us? The tzaddikim of the generation would act as the ketores. Mordechai and Esther were the ketores of their generation. It was through them that the world had a total, unbreakable connection to the source of life.

One who finds himself constantly in a morgue is desensitized to the smell of cadavers.

Mordechai and Esther were in the unique position to detect whether one path or another would lead to life or death. When Mordechai envisioned Achashveirosh’s feast, he smelled the odor of a putrefying body. Bowing down to Haman emitted the same odor. He alone sensed that the nation of Israel was in the grip of its death throes.

It is interesting to note, that the point in the Megillah where events are subjected to a total turn-around, is when Haman is forced to lead Mordechai through the city of Shushan on the king’s horse. It was revealed for all to see that to embrace Mordechai is to embrace the aroma of life. At that very opportune moment, Haman was disgraced by odorous dung thrown upon his head, and the subsequent death of his daughter.

Thus, the entire existence of the world depended on Mordechai’s sense of smell.

1 Meseches Chullin 139b

2  Parshas Breishis, Perek 6, Posuk 3

3 Parshas Breishis, Perek 3, Posuk 11

4 Shmos, Perek 30, Posuk 23

5 Devarim, Perek 31, Posuk 18

6 Parshas Breishis, Perek 2, Posuk 7

7 Rav Moshe Shapiro

8 Megillas Esther, Yalkut Me’Am Lo’ez, Perek 1, Posuk 5

9 Meseches Succah 45b

10 Meseches Succah 30b

11 Rav Moshe Shapiro

12 Megillas Esther, Perek 7, Posuk 6

13 Meseches Sanhedrin 93b

14 Rav Anan would have encounters with Eliyahu Hanavi. They were both walking through a very odorous, vulgar place and Rav Anan covered his nose. Later they reached a wealthy area that was extremely fragarant. This time Eliyahu covered his nose. Rav Anan asked Eliyahu, “Why is it that you covered your nose here but in the filthy putrid place you left it uncovered?” Eliyahu responded, “If you knew the real stench of the place you would also have covered your nose.”  Eliyahu was referring to the stench of mida of gayva. Gayva has an actual scent.


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