Acharei Mot: The Incense, the Sacrifices, the Individual and Togetherness
By Yoni Riskin, OTS Director of Development
“Thus said the Holy One, Blessed Be He: of all of the sacrifices you offer up, there is none dearer to me than the incense offering” (Tanhuma on Parashat Tetzaveh)
At the beginning of this week’s parsha, we encounter the great, holy light of Yom Kippur, the only day of the year when the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, is allowed to enter the Kodesh HaKodashim and the only time of the year he offers the incense offering.
The Kohen Gadol offers the incense offering, made entirely of fragrant, sweet-smelling plants bundled together, twice a day: once in the morning, and once more at dusk, in the heichal of the Beit HaMikdash. Once a year, however, on Yom Kippur, the kohen would finely grind the ingredients of the incense mixture, and burn them as an offering in the Kodesh Hakodeshim.
This parsha lists the sacrifices the kohen would offer to atone for the sins of Bnei Yisrael. The name korban is indicative of its nature, as it is derived from the word kirva – proximity. The sacrifice, or the korban, is a way of attaining proximity to God. Sacrifices are made using physical and tangible parts of the animal, indicating that the offering of the sacrifices is meant to correct certain external traits of the People of Israel.
The ketoret, the incense offering burnt by the Kohen HaGadol, is derived from the Aramaic word ketiru, which denotes a connection. This connection is indicative of devotion and an existential link, a bond between God and Israel that is hard to unravel or tear apart. Hence, the incense is symbolic of unity and the connection between internal traits within Am Yisrael.
To underscore the profound nature of this relationship, the incense is offered to Hashem at a sanctified spot, nestled deep within the Temple, a place kept separate from the rest of the sacrifices. The incense is offered at the Golden Altar, which is the internal altar located within the heichal, while all other sacrifices are offered on the Copper Altar, which is outside, in the courtyard of the Beit HaMikdash.
The incense’s unique fragrance broadened our hearts and souls, and infused Bnei Yisrael with vitality, joy and bliss. Just as today, when we smell fine perfumes or fresh baked goods, our moods are instantly uplifted, and our hearts are broadened. Over the ages, Jewish sages have regarded the pleasure produced by this smell as a delight of the soul: “What does our soul enjoy? You must say: it is the scent” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 43a).
Animal sacrifices are meant to correct reality and repair whatever has ruined. The Sin Offering and the Guilt Offering atone for sins and correct a person’s deeds. The burnt offering atones for a person’s inappropriate thoughts, and the shelamim (peace) offerings are designed to bring peace to ease tensions and disputes, and remedy separations and disconnects that must be reconnected and completed.
What about the incense? It’s very essence is not about correcting our physical reality, but rather to be a fragrant scent, to connect, to engender internal joy and deepen the love between God and Am Yisrael.
“… Yet the incense is not offered on account of sins, transgressions, or guilt, but rather, on account of joy…” (Tanhuma on Parashat Tetzaveh)
How do we attain such a heartwarming fragrant scent that brings us so much joy?
The incense is comprised of various plants and herbs, each of which have their own unique attributes, strengths and weaknesses, in terms of their tastes, smells, or their natural qualities. When they are joined together, they connect and form an inseparable bond. They assume a powerful dimension of power and infinite influence, and this is the unity and fragrant scent we desire.
Each and every one of us is singular, has their own natural traits, strengths and natural tendencies, and uses their strengths and talents to play an important role among Am Yisrael. Just like the incense, all of whose ingredients are vital to its preparation, an offering which can only be offered when these ingredients are firmly bonded, each and every one of us is singularly important to the nation of Israel, but if stay apart instead of uniting, we won’t be able to become a nation.
This unity is of paramount importance anywhere we, as individuals, wish to create a sense of togetherness within our families, at the workplace, in our communities, and more. Our individual strengths and “scents” are important, and they cause us to progress. However, if we aren’t united with the Jewish collective, if we don’t work on our morals and ethics, if we don’t work hard and leave our comfort zones, and if we don’t tolerate and accept others, sometimes even conceding certain things to other people, we will never be able to personify that fragrant scent, the special force that broadens our hearts and souls.
The real fragrant scent is the scent of togetherness, of sharing and modesty, and of how we embrace and delight in all of those around us. This is how we can help the incense fulfill its role of connecting and binding Am Yisrael, and in so doing, connect to God.