A couple of days ago, a physicist in our community Dr. Aaron Farber taught me the scientific hypothesis called “The Great Filter.” Basically this concept asserts that there may be life on other planets, but in order for that life to potentially interact with us, or for us to interact with them, we, or they, would first need to mature to an elevated state of knowledge and creativity, and while advancing to that point we must not use that knowhow first to destroy ourselves. In other words, theoretically we could find other life in the universe if we don’t first use our advances to nuke or pollute our own planet, and the same is true for the others out there. The ability of intelligent creatures to inflict self-harm becomes a “Great Filter”, preventing us from advancing farther.
Now, to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t care less if there are other intelligent life forms in the cosmos or not. I’m far too concerned with the challenges we have in front of us, right here. I am troubled that we seem so very distant from solving basic human setbacks like hunger and disease. And like you I wonder if the various nations on our planet will one day be able to achieve real harmony and real peace.
To our credit, the medical and agricultural breakthroughs coming out of Israel, with drip irrigation, the promotion of solar power, the prospects of wiping out cancers and harvesting drinking water from the air are encouraging. Meanwhile, in that same particular holy land we are faced with challenges that seem impossible to solve. So, what does the Creator of the universe prescribe to us to ease our pain? In our weekly Torah portion תצוה the medicine we receive from the pharmacist רֹ֥קַח מִרְקַ֖חַת מַעֲשֵׂ֣ה רֹקֵ֑חַ and is handled by the Kohanim who “shall burn… a regular incense offering before Hashem, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶֽם throughout the ages.” Rambam clarifies that the incense is to be offered twice daily, always.
Have you ever smelled the holy incense? Many of us are ambivalent about this mitzvah, though it is an everlasting commandment meant for all ages. We read about it in our Torah but we aren’t allowed to smell it; just as we are unable to bring our many other obligations, because we live in a state of destruction. The Great Filter has prevented us from elevating ourselves spiritually. Have we have filtered ourselves to the point that we are uncomfortable with much of our own Torah? Have we filtered ourselves to the point that we are ashamed of the idea of a holy Temple with sweet incense and offerings? But what would the presence of a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem mean? The Temple is the icing on the cake of repair. It’s existence would indicate that all peoples have already come together in unity, to acknowledge the Source of goodness and decency, to support the Jewish nation and the Creator of the universe. The presence of a place for incense signifies human harmony.
In the meantime, without the ability to smell the holy incense, how can we glean the spiritual benefits using the sense of smell? We can take a moment to smell flowers and fragrant trees even giving thanks to the Creator בורא עצי בשמים we can also smell herbs and grasses and praise the Creator בורא עשבי בשמים, we can better appreciate fragrant fruit by realizing who gave us these amazing gifts, saying the blessing הנותן ריח טוב בפרות. And we can go out of our way to reclaim the weekly ritual of smell, on Saturday nights after Shabbat. We can make havdalah with its blessings praising Hashem who creates species of fragrance. Perhaps that sweet smell which we infuse into our minds and our hearts would direct us toward a week of increased awareness in our daily actions. Let us use what we have in front of us to sharpen our imaginations and to give us hope. May we avoid the Great Self Filter and instead become positive builders.