The Ketores Connection
The first chapter of Pirkey Avos tells us that one of the pillars the world stands on is korbanos. Although the word korban (singular for korbanos) is usually translated as “sacrifices“, the Jewish concept bears almost no resemblance to the gory destruction that word evokes in western consciousness. To the contrary, the Hebrew word korban is etymologically derived from the word karov, to be close, or lekarev, to bring closer. Closer to whom? To the Almighty Himself.
Korbanos triggered an outpouring of good from above on both a spiritual and physical level. Every korban brought a unique goodness into the world. They atoned for past mistakes that placed a barrier between us and the One we love. Korbanos cleansed our hearts and enabled us to delve into a more complete relationship with our Creator.
But the korbanos did not stand alone. Korbanos were accompanied by a special mitzvah called the ketores, incense, featuring at the beginning of Parashas Ki-Sisa (Exodus 30:34). While different korbanos highlighted different elements of our relationship with our Creator, the ketores spoke to something even deeper: the fundamental, indestructible connection every Jew shares with the One above.
The word ketores implies connection. Since Aramaic is interchangeable with Hebrew in Jewish thought, the word keter in Aramaic is identical to the word kesher in Hebrew. Kesher means connection. The ketores symbolized the powerful bond connecting Israel to their Father in Heaven, a link nearly impossible to undermine or wrench apart.
While most korbanos were offered up on the copper altar located outside of the sanctuary, the ketores was offered up on the golden altar within. Our connection with the Almighty is infused with intimacy and holiness. The location of the ketores reflected the fact that this sacred connection dwells in the innermost chambers of our own being.
But the ketores served another purpose in our history as well. Parashas Korach (Numbers 17:12) describes a plague breaking out amongst the nation when the Jewish People complained against Moshe (Moses) and Aharon (Aaron) following their difficult contention with Korach and his men. As the plague swept through the people, Moshe commanded Aharon to take a fire-pan, use it to offer up ketores, and then run with it to the people to protect them from further infection. Aharon did as he was told, and as he stood with the ketores between the living and the dead, the plague came to an end.
The idea that the Torah teaches us here is simple: it is our intimate connection with the Almighty that saves us from death. Since the Almighty is the source of all life, all who maintain their connection and cultivate a special intimacy with Him gain closer access to the gift of life. Even at times of particular danger and plague, an intimate connection with the Source of life saves a person from destruction.
To our great sorrow, today the Beis HaMikdash is no more and we are unable to offer up korbanos or ketores. However, our sages taught us that there is great worth in studying and reciting the sections of the Torah discussing korbanos and the ketores, called the Pitom HaKetores in the siddur. Reciting the source of these commandments in the Torah brings us one step closer to them. It even has the power to connect us with our Creator and to merit the outpouring of good from above that we once knew.