CLEAR THE AIR
Rabbi David Walk
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, note 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 Landsdowne 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 of obvious is practical. Let's be honest, the Temple was a holy slaughter house, and the smells could get overwhelming. The eleven spices in the ketoret made a fragrance so sweet and overpowering that it could 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 than 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 burnt 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 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.