Mishna Yoma (4:4) teaches that while the incense that was brought each day in the Beit HaMikdash was finely ground, the incense that was brought by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur had been ground even further. As we learn in today’s daf (Yoma 45a), what this means is that once the incense was ground, it needed to be returned to the mortar and be ground once again.
Reflecting on this, I am reminded of a beautiful insight that I read around 8 years ago – not long after I moved to Israel – in Rabbi Marc Angel’s ‘But who am I, and who are my people?’ (pp. 5-7) about the way in which the incense was ground, and the lessons we can all learn from this process:
‘During my first few years as a rabbi, I studied…[with] Rabbi Meyer Simcha Feldblum…[and] at one of our sessions (in the spring of 1971), I confided in him that I was thinking of leaving the rabbinate. I had only been serving for a few years, but I found the pressures unbearable. I was not bothered by the actual rabbinic responsibilities; I was quite happy with my work and the people of the congregation. So what was my complaint? The task was too great. I had in mind a vision of what a congregation should be in a perfect world. I thought that if I devoted myself selflessly to achieving these ideals, I would succeed in realizing my vision. But I had worked day and night, drawn on all my intellect and talent, and nevertheless nothing much was changing. The congregation was no nearer my ideal of perfection; my work was in vain; perhaps I was simply inadequate to the challenge. Dr. Feldblum offered me a rabbinic lesson. In the days of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem, the Temple ritual required the offering of incense. The priest put together the various spices and ground them into a very fine mixture. The Talmud (Keritut 6b) states that when the priest was grinding the spices, someone stood alongside him and said: “Grind it very fine, very fine grind it.” Why was this person obligated to say this? The Talmud explain: “Because the voice is good for [grinding] spices.” Dr. Feldblum asked: “In what way is the voice good for the grinding of spices? How does this help in the preparation of the incense?” The answer: When the priest is grinding the spices, he reaches a point where he feels his work is useless. Nothing is happening. The continued grinding makes no difference. So a person stands alongside him and tell him: keep grinding, something is happening even if you don’t readily perceive it. Stay with the task until it is done properly. “So it is,” said Dr. Feldblum, “with the work of a rabbi or teacher. You work very hard, grinding away at your labours, sometimes feeling that nothing is happening, nothing is changing. Someone needs to stand up and tell you: your work is not in vain. It may seem tedious and unproductive. But keep your eye on the goal. Have patience. Keep grinding.” Dr. Feldblum’s voice gave me the encouragement I needed at that moment. His was the voice that said: keep grinding.’
Since first encountering this insight, I have often thought of the incense as I have dealt with the grind and challenges in my life, and I have greatly valued those around me who have given me chizuk and encouragingly told me to ‘keep grinding.’ And for my part, I have also endeavoured to be mechazek others, and through doing so, I have encouraged them in their journey and in their mission of ‘grinding their incense’.
Ultimately, while it may be easy to think that the laws and teachings found in our daf are distant from our daily lives, each of us – in our own way – are a kohen; each of us are – in our own way – grinding our incense, and each of us are able to do effectively – without losing our focus or our faith in ourselves – when those around us give us chizuk and encouragement to ‘keep on grinding’.