By Rabbi Yehuda
A significant portion of this week's Parsha is dedicated to
the Yom Kippur Avodah (Service). The high point of the Avodah
is the "Ketores" (burning of the incense). Here, the
Kohen Gadol, clad in special white linen garments, enters the
Kodesh HaKadashim (Holy of Holies) holding both a container
of incense spice and a shovel of coals. He proceeds to fill
his hands with the spice and then drops it on the coals. The
resultant smoke fills the chamber with a veritable cloud of
The Ketores occupies a special niche in the catalogue of Temple
Services. Indeed, the Rabbis interpret the second verse of this
week's Parsha to the effect that it is only by the forming of
the cloud of Ketores that the Kohen Gadol is allowed to enter
the Kodesh HaKadashim (Holy of Holies).
We can now ask three questions. What is the special significance
of the Ketores that entrance to the Kodesh HaKadashim demands
its performance? Conversely, why must this particular Ketores
be enacted specifically within the confines of the Kodesh HaKadashim?
Finally, why does the Kohen Gadol wear his special white garments
(as opposed to the usual golden ones) when performing the Ketores?
According to the Abarbanel, the Ketores symbolizes man's attempt
to attain a genuine and complete Emunah (belief) in HaShem.
The level of D'veykus (cleaving) that man, with a complete Emunah,
achieves with Hashem is beyond belief. It is solely with this
D'veykus that the Kohen Gadol can gain admittance to that most
intimate of rendezvous spots with Hashem, the Kodesh HaKadashim.
When it comes, though, to the practical implementation and development
of Emunah, each person faces a dilemma of sorts. Should one
rely on independent philosophical inquiry to gain an appreciation
of Hashem or should one's Emunah be based solely on the Torah's
account of Hashem? Each approach has its shortcomings. Many
who have chosen the former paradoxically become confused and
weakened in their faith. The latter approach, while not as perilous,
lacks the power of first hand knowledge. In fact, over the last
millennium, there has been an ongoing Rabbinic debate over just
which approach to take. As we shall see, a close study of the
fine details of the Ketores yields a degree of resolution to
The Abarbanel maintains that the container with its spices represents
man's mind with its personal thoughts and inquiries, whereas
the shovel of fiery coals represents mans grasp of Hashem's
Torah. (The Torah is symbolized by fire - see Jeremiah Chap.
23.) Just as the cloud of Ketores can only be formed once the
incense spices have met the coals, so too it is only when man
fuses his general intellect with his grasp of Torah that he
can achieve true Emunah. Returning to our dilemma, it appears
that the Abarbanel does not advocate either approach to the
exclusion of the other but rather a combination of the two.
Still a very real concern presents itself. Even the Kohen Gadol
is human and, as such, is subject to the frailties and biases
inherent in the human condition. The possibility, thus, exists
that, on a very subtle level, the Kohen Gadol's personal perceptions
can taint his grasp and interpretation of the Torah. There has
to be an opportunity for him to prevent (or, if need be, to
That opportunity is Yom Kippur. For on Yom Kippur, prior to
taking up the Ketores, the Kohen Gadol dons his white garments.
These white garments represent: A) The purity of mind and soul
that the Kohen Gadol (and others) strive to achieve on Yom Kippur.
B) General submission and, within the context of Ketores, intellectual
submission. The Kohen Gadol is enjoined to cast off his biases
and preconceived notions, approaching the Torah with a fresh
Additionally, the Kohen Gadol must enter the Kodesh HaKadashim
and stand directly before the Aron (Ark). The Aron is the repository
of the Luchos (Tablets). It represents Torah etched in stone,
pure and unadulterated. When the Kohen Gadol enacts the Ketores
in front of the Aron, he is, in essence, holding up his own,
possibly tainted, perception of the Torah to the pristine "light"
of the Aron and its contents. This is his unique opportunity
to recalibrate his own vulnerable understanding of Torah using
the yardstick of the Luchos. By utilizing these symbols and
lessons, the Kohen Gadol guarantees that his Emunah will remain
Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horvitz, the famed Sh'lah Hakodesh, maintains
that our developing a philosophical appreciation of Hashem has
its advantages. Based on the verse: "This is my G-d, and
I will "adorn" Him; The G-d of my father, and I will
exalt Him." (Exodus 15, 2). He makes the following observation:
If our Emunah is philosophically grounded and clear to the eyes
of our intellect to the extent the we can say: "This is
my G-d" (The word "This" denotes a tangible perception.),
then we can achieve an intimately close relationship with Him
- The Hebrew for "I will adorn Him", V'ANVeHU, is
homiletically rendered: ANi VeHU, "I together with Him.
If, however, our Emunah is based solely on the received Torah
account of Him ("G-d of my father"), then "I
will exalt Him", Hashem will be lofty, yet distant from
Even with these advantages, as the Abarbanel has shown, we cannot
rely solely on the philosophical approach. We need to unite
our philosophical understanding with our grasp of the Torah.
In addition, we must use the model of the white garments to
purify our mind and soul (Not every experience that society
has to offer leaves them unsullied.) and cast off our preconceived
notions (nor are all the thought systems we've been exposed
to consistent with the Torah).
Finally, as mentioned earlier, the Kohen Gadol, once a year,
entered the Kodesh HaKadashim to ensure that his Torah understanding
not become corrupted. Perhaps we too can periodically consult
in Torah with a Rabbi, Rebbi or mentor; someone whom we can
trust; someone who has studied the Torah with limited bias and
subjectivity and can act as a spiritual tether line for us,
making sure we don't stray too far. Following such a prescription
would certainly put us on the road to a more genuine Emunah.