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A smokescreen called Ketores

Written by d fine

There is a deep connection between learning Torah and acting in accordance with that learning. The downside of this ‘learn-do’ connection is that when one does not do a mitzvah for a while then one forgets its details – how many of us know much about korbanos, the beis hamikdash, or even terumah and maaser? So it is especially sweet to speak a little bit about ketores (‘frankincense’) . A quick introduction of the ‘basics’ – there are two ketores (spices) put on the inner alter per day – once in morning and once in the evening (Shemos 30;7-8, 34-38). And see the pitom haketores section of davening for its ingredients. Other than that there was a special yom kippur ketores – this is the one mentioned in our sedra (16;12-13) and this is what we shall briefly discuss.
[Completely unrelated joke about smell…A man was walking with his dog who had no nose. Someone was walking past and looked in amazement, ‘forgive me for being rude, but how on earth does your dog smell?’ he asked. The dog owner paused, looked up and replied ‘Terrible!’] Anyway, what is the purpose of this ketores?And why was it used by Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aharon, before they died (10;1)?
The point goes as follows…pasuk 2 (perek 16) tells us that there is a death penalty should Aharon go into the kodesh kodashim (holiest) part of the mishkan. He may only go in once a year on Yom Kippur, and even when he does so He may only go in with the ketores (Rashi). The ketores allows Aharon to enter the kodesh kodashim to perform the rest of the Yom Kippur service. Pasuk 13 sums it up – that the ketores is there to prevent the automatic death penalty for going into the kodesh kodashim via its cloud of smoke. Essentially then, ketores is the original ‘smokescreen,’ i.e. in a certain way it shadows the Kohen Gadol from the over-awing Presence of the Shechinah, which would normally result in death.
Perhaps this can be explained via something the Or Hachaim says in parshas Bo (11;5). He says that the way the Egyptians died in the plague of the firstborns was that HaShem revealed Himself to them, and naturally their souls flew out to their Source and Creator. This occurred to us, the Bnei Yisrael, too at Mattan Torah. So too here, the natural order of events should be that when in the kodesh kodashim HaShem’s Presence is so detectable that the Kohen Gadol’s soul would naturally fly out to its Source, ensuring death. But the ketores smoke puts up a smokescreen to ‘hide’ the Presence of the Shechinah, as it were, and so the soul stays where it is in the body of the Kohen Gadol.

This can give a new perspective to a halacha quoted by Rashi (16;13) that if one did not include all of the ingredients of the ketores then one is killed. According to the above, then it does not necessarily mean that the punishment for missing out an ingredient is death, but rather if it’s lacking one ingredient then there’s no effective smokescreen, and thus there is nothing to prevent the automatic death when entering the kodesh kodashim.
However, that is not it; there is more. The gemarra (Yoma 44a) clearly says that ketores atones for sins. Now according to what we said above, the ketores is not actually part of the atoning process itself (the korbanos, throwing sheep of cliff, etc. of yom kippur) but rather allows it all to happen. The fact that it atones too tells us that the ketores has a new dimension. But why is this not particularly clear in any of the psukim if this is such an important function?

Maybe it can thus be explained that the other t
wo psukim (2 and 13) already tell us the reason for the atoning facet of the ketores. As said already, the purpose of the ketores is to shield Aharon from the Shechinah and thus prevent him from dying. Therefore, what is necessary for offering the ketores is the recognition of HaShem being above us and that we would not be able to survive in His close Presence; hence the need to offer the ketores as the smokescreen. This means that the root of the ketores is modesty and humility. Maybe these are what create the atoning factor of the ketores.
This actually explains a point brought at the start of the sedra by the ikar sifsei chachamim (4) that the tzeddukim (the group that did not keep authentic yiddishkeit) thought that one was supposed to make the ketores cloud before entering the kodesh kodashim. And if the reason of the ketores is a smokescreen then this position seems perfectly logical; the smokescreen should be up and running before going in. But they forgot the extra dimension of the ketores that the root of it all is modesty and it atones; thus it can even be ‘up and running’ when inside the kodesh kodashim.
With all this we can go back three sedras and shine new light upon a very perplexing incident; the sin and death of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aharon. It was the day the mishkan’s dedication was over and HaShem’s Shechinah had just come down and rested upon the mishkan (9;23). Nadav and Avihu – of their own accord – offered the ketores and were punished with death (10; 1-2). This was not rashness; they had greatness that Moshe and Aharon did not possess (pasuk 3). What was there sin and why did they do it?

Rashi quotes different opinions in different places as to their sin. In 10;2 he quotes opinions that they were drunk or that they ruled halacha in front of Moshe. And in 16;1 he brings a view that their sin was entering the kodesh kodashim. Given that Rashi’s way of explaining is always according to the ‘simple understanding of the pasuk’ why does he quote three opinions in two different places? (In fact, the midrash quoted by tosfos Yoma 53a brings other opinions as to the reasons for their death). And why is such an important sin left vague and unexplained by the Torah, without clearly saying exactly what the sin was?
Let’s start with the question as to why they decided to offer the ketores in the first place. The background is that it was the eighth and final day of the dedication of the mishkan, and HaShem’s Schechinah had come down. Eight, the Maharal explains, is the number of ‘that which is beyond and above nature’ e.g. the bris milah on the eighth day. [7 is the number of the natural world; seven colours in a rainbow, seven days in a week]. Nadav and Avihu simply thought that ‘we know that people cannot survive HaShem’s Presence, and we know that the way to get round this problem is to offer the ketores, so the obvious answer is to go and offer the ketores.’ And so they did.

However, as Rav Dessler says, their sin was that of ga’avah ie haughtiness, the opposite of modesty/humility. (HaShem had not told anyone to put ketores for His Shechinah to rest there) This, he says is why the Torah leaves it open and does not tell us exactly what the sin was, to enable many opinions, each of them based on gaavah to teach us that there are many faces and expressions to gaavah. For example, having the audacity to make a halachic ruling in front of Moshe is clearly built on gaavah. This could also be why Rashi quotes three opinions as to their sin – because they are really all from one root sin, that of gaavah. And thus the ketores did not protect them, even if their sin was entering the kodesh kodashim, because ketores is based upon modesty whilst they carried with them the trait of gaavah.

Have a great Shabbes,

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