The rebellion of Korach is always a disheartening story, in so many ways. How could anyone question the authority of Moshe? He ascended Mt. Sinai and brought down the Tablets from God; he spoke directly to the Almighty. We still revere him and consider him our mentor, rabbeinu. Well, familiarity breeds contempt. The closer we are physically to an individual, the harder it is to show the requisite reverence, nota bene his own sister and brother back in Chapter 12. It was easy for Korach and cohorts to be jealous of the living, breathing Moshe. There are two Green Monsters in this world. That marvelous structure on Lansdowne Street in the heart of Boston and every true Red Sox fan, and that demon, jealousy, seething in the breast of humanity, which can destroy us all. However, this year I’m less interested in exploring the rebellion than I am in trying to understand the resolution of the situation, namely the test of the ketoret, or incense.
First, I’d like to make a few observations about the ketoret. As you’d assume, there are many reasons given for the existence of this mitzvah. The most obvious is practical. Let’s be honest, the Temple was a holy slaughter house, and the smells could get overwhelming. The 11 spices in the ketoret made a fragrance so sweet and overpowering that it could be whiffed as far away as Jericho, about 15 miles downwind. But practicality barely begins the discussion of the incense.
The incense and its altar are clearly different from the other items in the Mishkan. All of the furnishings of the Mishkan are listed in Parshat Teruma, except the incense altar. That’s described five chapters later, seemingly, after everything else has been built. Also, its placement is described with its construction information as “in front of the dividing curtain, which is upon the Ark of Testimony, in front of the Ark cover, which is upon the testimony, where I will arrange to meet with you (Exodus 30:6).” The incense is clearly an aid in the communication with God, a connector.
And finally, the Rav, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, points out that the burning of the incense is inextricably bound to the lighting of the Menorah, “Every morning when he sets the lamps in order, he shall make it go up in smoke. And when Aaron kindles the lights in the afternoon, he shall make it go up in smoke (verses 7-8).” The Talmud (Yoma 14b) tells us that the incense was burned after setting up (hatavah) the first five lights of the Menorah, indicating that the burning of the incense together with the setup and lighting of the Menorah were one kiyum, one mitzvah act. One might have thought that the incense smoke blocks or clouds the vision of the Divine Presence, to shield us from its intensity (as some commentaries have asserted), but the Rav is explaining that this pillar of swirling smoke really helps give the community clarity concerning the presence of God. Just as the Menorah’s flames aid our vision, so, too, does this cloud. Normally, people think “smoke gets in your eyes,” signifying that “a lovely flame dies” because “my love has flown away” (thank you, Jerome Kern). However, this pillar of incense draws our attention heavenward, reminding us of God’s presence.
This brings us to the story. Many commentaries explain that the essential mitzvah of our Torah reading is tzitzit or mezuzah, because of the juxtaposition of those mitzvot and our story. But, in reality, the pertinent mitzvah must be ketoret, because that is embedded in the narrative twice. First it is the test used to determine the true kohen or representative of the community in the Divine service. Why this act and not an offering or lighting the Menorah? Now, I can assert confidently that the reason is that the role of the kohen is to connect us to God, to make God’s presence manifest in the community. No act in the Mishkan, and later Holy Temple, accomplished this more powerfully than the creation of the pillar of smoke. The 11 spices represent the constituents of the community (I believe that number stands for the 11 tribes without Levi, who joins by actuating the column of smoke), and the smoky pillar is our lifeline to heaven and God.
But there’s another appearance of ketoret in our story. God seems to have had enough of these whining Jews and announces that they shall be consumed, destroyed. A plague breaks out among the Jews in the camp; 14,700 die. Moshe jumps to action: Moses said to Aaron, “Take the censer and put fire from the altar top into it and put incense. Then, take it quickly to the congregation and atone for them, for wrath has gone forth from the Lord, and the plague has begun” (Numbers 17:11). Why is the incense the atonement? Why is the agent of death for the 250 claimants to the role of Aharon the instrument of salvation during the plague? Yes, the incense can cause death when mishandled, both here and the story of Nadav and Avihu (Leviticus 10:1-3), but the true role of the incense is to heal and atone. We see this on Yom Kippur when the kohen gadol brings incense into the Holy of Holies, and this atonement aspect is mentioned with the instructions to build the gold altar for the incense offering (Exodus 30:10). The Midrash continues this theme to say that the incense brings atonement both in this world and the World to Come (Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 16).
But, again, I ask why? Why is this substance such a powerful vehicle for atonement? I already mentioned the unifying power of the ketoret, but the Kli Yakar adds another dimension. That great 17th-century rav explains that this pleasant-smelling smoke rising toward heaven hints to the soul, which is the most refined of the fine (dak, like the ketoret ingredients), which requires atonement to rise back to its place of origin (Exodus 30:1). The rising smoke reminds us of our own yearning to rise heavenward. What could be clearer?
By Rabbi David Walk
Rabbi David Walk is a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s Education Director. He is a tireless teacher and educator. For over 30 years he has taught students from third grade and up and conducted many classes for teens and adults. Prior to joining CAS, he served as director and teacher at Yeshivot Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel.