Parshas Acharei Mos - Kedoshim:
The Significance of the Ketores

By Rabbi Yehuda Krohn

    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 incense.

    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 this dilemma.

    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 correct) this.

    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 perspective.

    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 genuine.

    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 us.

    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.

By Rabbi Yehuda Krohn



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