Shimon his son says: All my days I have been raised among scholars, and I found nothing better for the body than silence…. (Avot 1:17)

The respective roles of the body (silence) and the soul (spiritual leadership) are indicated in a beautiful comment of the Sages regarding divine service in the Holy Temple.

Let us assume that wine, the source of so much material pleasure, symbolized the body, and incense (which is inhaled but never consumed) symbolized the soul. How appropriate then that the wine used for libation offerings was prepared in an atmosphere of total silence, while the incense was formulated while the spice-makers spoke. (cg. Menachot 87a)

The material side of man…when properly channeled and successfully restrained can also play a significant and visible role….

In this light we can better appreciate a rather difficult teaching of our Sages and perhaps also gain insight as to how wisdom may be acquired. We are told "wine and spices lead to wisdom" (Yoma 76a). This may refer to different methods of acquiring wisdom - through the subordination and silencing of the body, compared to wine, and by uplifting the soul, symbolized by incense.

It is also noteworthy that the roles of wine and incense in the Holy Temple were reversed once the preparatory phase had been completed. At that point, wine was poured alongside the Altar amidst the loud and joyous singing of the Levites, while the incense (especially during the Yom Kippur service) was offered in the total silence and seclusion of the Holy of Holies.

This "role reversal" also conveys a compelling message: The material side of man need not be dormant, but, rather, when properly channeled and successfully restrained it can also play a significant and visible role. The soul, on the other hand, which is the source of our most heartfelt prayers and most profound Torah thoughts, not only is stimulated to grow in its present form (encased within the body), but even its heavenly roots (so beyond our comprehension that we must remain silent) are also stimulated.

[Anthologized and adapted by Yosef Stern, from "Pirkei Avos: Sfas Emes" (Mesorah)]