Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35)
After a lengthy description of the materials that needed to be prepared for the construction of the Mishkan [Tabernacle] and for the performing of the ritual worship, Hashem orders Moshe: “Take for yourself aromatics, [namely] balsam sap, onycha and galbanum, aromatics and pure frankincense… and you shall make it into an incense…” [Ex. 30:34]
Hashem commands Moshe to take a group of plants that could be used to create a smoke-producing incense. The incense was then used by the kohen [priest] during his daily Temple service in the morning and in the evening. When he entered the Mishkan to kindle the candles of the Menorah, he would light the incense on the Golden Altar. The pinnacle occurred on Yom Kippur, when the Kohen Gadol [High Priest] would enter the Holy of Holies, and a cloud of incense would envelop the entire Mishkan.
This incense was also used to help identify the person Hashem had elected, when prominent members of the nation complained about Moshe and Aharon’s leadership. In certain cases, the incense also helped atone for the nation.
Logic would have it that the plants used in the incense have two properties: that they be fragrant, and that they emit considerable amounts of smoke when burned. Thus, one particular ingredient – galbanum – beckons our attention. Our rabbis tell us that this plant smelled horrible. If so, why include such a plant in the incense?
Our rabbis provide an original response: “A fast in which none of the sinners of Israel participate is no fast, for behold, the odor of galbanum is unpleasant, yet it was included among the spices for the incense.” There may be more fragrant plants, but Hashem wanted foul-smelling plants to be included, as well. Even the most fragrant incense mixture is not incense at all if it does not contain a foul-smelling plant.
For good reason, the Yom Kippur liturgy opens with these famous words: “In the tribunal of Heaven and in the tribunal of Earth, by the permission of God and by the permission of the holy congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with the transgressors.” One of the strategic weapons that comes to our aid when we reach this holy day is the fact that we are all coming to pray together. We are all praying, not just one exclusive group.
Only a few verses later, the Torah recounts the episode of the terrible Sin of the Golden Calf, when Hashem proposes to Moshe that He would destroy the entire nation, and create a new nation out of Moshe’s descendents. Moshe declines the offer. “I am the leader of this nation, including all of its transgressors and wrongdoers, and I want to continue leading them. Those who transgressed with the Golden Calf are my target audience. It is them that I must correct.”
This is the secret of the incense, which is described in such proximity to the Sin of the Golden Calf. The word “ketoret” denotes various things, and the simplest denotation is undeniably related to the smoke the incense produces. However, the word ketoret has another denotation, derived from the word “kesher” – to bind. Indeed, the group of plants burned for the incense are bound together, and are intertwined. The special fragrance can only be produced when they are together. The unique secret of the incense lies in its ability to combine different smells that do not ordinarily complement each other, and in fact give off contrasting scents.
Could it be that our society needs some galbanum, which, when smelled alone, gives off a pungent odor, though when bundled with other plants, creates a certain equilibrium? We certainly should not allow the galbanum to overpower the entire incense mixture. But we should keep in mind that every incense contains a pinch of galbanum, and that it, too, plays a part in fixing our society and our nation.