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The Secret of the Incense Offering

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Parshat Terumah details the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the vessels contained in the Mishkan (such as the Ark, Table, Candelabra, and Courtyard Altar). Parshat Tetzaveh, which follows Parshat Terumah, details the special clothing that the kohanim (priests) and kohen gadol (high priest) were required to wear while serving in the Mishkan. The Torah explains how the Divine Presence will dwell in the Mishkan and how the Mishkan will, thereby, be sanctified. The Torah then details the construction of one last vessel that was to be placed in the Mishkan, The Golden Altar. The Golden Altar was to be used to offer the daily incense offerings and not to be used for animal offerings.

Many commentators ask why The Golden Altar was not initially listed and described along with the Ark, Table, Candelabra, and Courtyard Altar. Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sfrono) and Ramban (Nachmanidies) explain that the purpose of The Golden Incense Altar was different from the purpose of all the other vessels of the Mishkan. All the other vessels were there to ensure the Divine Presence would dwell in the Mishkan. The Golden Incense Altar, on the other hand, was a response to the Divine Presence that dwelled in and sanctified the Mishkan.

Ramban then goes on to explain that the secret purpose of the Ketoret offering is to counter God’s attribute of justice/judgement. The Hebrew word for nose is Af, which is also the root of the Hebrew word Af, meaning anger. The pleasant smell of the incense offering was intended to counter the burning anger of the one nostril by filling the other nostril with a pleasant smell. Rebbi Nachman explains that the burning of the incense offering represents judgement, but the pleasant smell represents a spirit of charity and kindness. The message of the Ketoret offering is that we are able to mitigate negativity, idol worship, and judgement through a spirit of pleasant kindness and generosity. It is as if we declare before God: ‘We know we are filled with physical desires, desires for wealth, negativity, etc., but we will mitigate and control that part of our nature through charity and kindness.’ This is the pleasant smell before God.

Rebbi Nachman explains further that this then becomes a source of great joy for man and God as is stated in Proverbs: “Ketoret (Incense offering) makes the heart joyous.” (Proverbs 22)

On a personal level, when we unite our burning desire for wealth with a spirit of generosity and kindness, we are happy with our lot in life and are able to rejoice. This is why Ketoret (Incense) means ‘connect’. Our fire (burning desire related to judgement) is tempered with our spirit of charity and kindness (pleasant smell). In the spirit of the festival of Purim, let us give gifts to the poor and presents to our friends.