The Incense Offering

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


The Incense Offering

By Rav Michael Hattin


With the catastrophe of the Spies just behind them, the People of Israel begin their relentless and reluctant march into the wilderness of Paran at God's indignant behest. They anxiously enter its desolate confines with a deep sense of foreboding, for they know that they will not emerge from it alive. No doubt the people, in spite of last week's concluding message assuring their descendents a brighter future, feel distraught and despondent. How difficult it is to continue with the struggles and challenges that life presents, when the promise of purpose and the dream of a destination is now so hopelessly out of reach!

Into the despair steps Korach, a demagogic provocateur and a mastermind of timing, who quickly musters a rainbow coalition of malcontents to challenge the leadership of Moshe and Aharon. Accusing them of despotism and autocracy, Korach and his cohorts cynically contrast Moshe's earlier promises of leading them to a fertile land of fields and vineyards with their present wretched predicament:

Korach son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi, and Datan and Aviram sons of Reuven, and On son of Pelet, son of Reuven, all arose before Moshe along with two hundred and fifty men from the people of Israel, every one of them princes of the congregation, members of the assembly, and men of renown. They gathered against Moshe and Aharon and said: "Don't you have enough?! The entire congregation is holy and God is in their midst. Why, then, do both of you exercise rule over the congregation of God?!...Was it not enough that you took us out of a land flowing with milk and honey only in order to kill us in the wilderness, and now you must lord it over us as well?! " (Bemidbar 16:1-3, 13).


Some of Korach's followers, including those that hail from the displaced tribe of Reuven, are genuinely aggrieved at the election of the Levites to the service of the Tabernacle, instead of the firstborn. Others, more populist and democratic in outlook, are disturbed by the concentration of so much temporal power in the hands of the aged brothers: shouldn't the service of God be open to any and all who genuinely seek His presence? Korach, himself, however, is more distressed by the appointment of Aharon and his descendents to the office of the High Priesthood. This singular honor has been bestowed upon the prophet and his sons seemingly by Divine fiat, while Korach's own substantial talents have been overlooked.

Skillfully, Korach compiles the simmering murmurs of grievance into a lurid litany of lament, a raucous and indignant outcry now concentrated upon Moshe that hangs heavily in the hot and oppressive desert air and refuses to dissipate: But why has Aharon been awarded the priesthood if not because he unfairly enjoys Moshe's support? And why have the firstborn of the people been disqualified from the ministering at the Tabernacle in favor of the Levites, if not because the latter are Moshe's kin? And why has Elizaphan son of Uziel been appointed as chief of the Clan of Kehat, if not because Moshe prefers him to Korach, who is Elizaphan's elder?


Quickly, the rebellion comes to a head, as Korach and his swelling ranks of hundreds prepare to engineer their own election by invoking Divine approval for Moshe and Aharon's ouster. Arranging their incense firepans in response to Moshe's challenge, they assemble with their flagrant sacrifice to confront Aharon's own offering, confidently awaiting the sure sign of heavenly fire that will secure their promotion to leadership. Expectantly, the congregation of Israel gathers around the combatants, who are positioned at the 'protest tent' of the ringleaders Korach, Datan and Aviram. But all of it is to no avail. Korach and his cohorts are summarily incinerated by the celestial flames, their ambitions for self-advancement now forcefully thwarted. Datan and Aviram, two of Korach's most ardent supporters and Moshe's most bitter and implacable opponents, are miraculously consumed in a sudden earthquake that swallows them, their families, and all of their worldly possessions. The people of Israel, in the meantime, who had thrown their support behind Korach and his men and then bemoaned their unnatural demise, are grievously stricken with pestilence, and many perish before Aharon arrests the death by supplicating God with an offering of incense.

It will be noted that while the neutralization of Korach and his band is accomplished by a variety of threatening and decidedly Divine means – a flash of lightening, a sudden temblor and a ruinous plague – the trigger for all of that destruction was a single ritual act undertaken at Moshe's behest: the offering of fragrant incense. Conversely, as some of the people of Israel lay dying in the aftermath of Korach's rash rebellion, afflicted by illness and burning with fever, it was again Moshe's directive concerning an incense offering that halted the plague:

Moshe said to Aharon: "Take the firepan, place fire from the altar upon it and put there incense, and quickly take it to the congregation and atone for them, for the wrath has issued forth from before God and the plague has begun!" Aharon took it just as Moshe had told him, and he ran into the midst of the congregation, for behold the plague had started among the people. He placed the incense and atoned for the people. He stood between the dead and the living and the plague was stayed…(17:11-13).

What is it about an incense offering in particular that Moshe initially selected it as the destructive means of proving Korach's mettle and then once again invoked it in order to stop the plague and bring closure to the episode? And is it not unusual that in both instances (16:5-6,16-17; 17:11-13), the one introducing the contest and the other decisively concluding it, Moshe decided on the matter without any obvious Divine input?


Rashi, addressing the incident of the plague, first invokes a mystical explanation (that is based upon a Talmudic tradition preserved in Tractate Shabbat 89a):

When Moshe ascended to the heavens (at the time of the giving of the Torah – see Shemot 24:15-18), the Angel of Death imparted to him this mystery, namely that the incense stays the plague (commentary to 17:11).

It is not possible to ascribe any rational content to this explanation since it explicitly depends upon the angelic imparting of a "mystery." In other words, as people fell dying in the camp of Israel, Moshe himself could not possibly have intuited that an offering of incense would stay the plague; only by virtue of the fact that the Angel of Death had earlier provided Moshe with that "insider information" (after all, dying and death are this angel's specialty) was he able to direct Aharon how to proceed. Of course, while this tradition comes to ostensibly explain the AFTERMATH of Korach's revolt, it does little to explain its COMMENCEMENT. We still do not know why Moshe chose just this offering to bring down God's fiery wrath upon the rebels.

Rashi, though, goes on to provide us with an alternate reading:

Another explanation: why incense (to stay the plague)? It was because the people of Israel were slandering the incense and crying out against it, saying: "it is poison! Did not Nadav and Avihu perish by it? Did not the two hundred and fifty men die on it account?!" Therefore, God said in response: "You shall see how it yet can stop the plague, for it is sin that brings death!"

In this reading, Moshe's choice of incense to stop the pestilence is a direct response to the people's provocations concerning its seemingly deadly effects. When the congregation sees that Korach's cohorts have died, they immediately assume that the incense offering is to blame. Was it not an offering of incense at the time of the Mishkan's dedication that led to the untimely death of Aharon's sons Nadav and Avihu, under eerily similar circumstances (see Vayikra 10:1-2)? In order to impress upon the people that it was not the incense offering per se that was responsible for the death of Korach's henchman but rather their offensive conduct, Moshe bids Aharon to use that very substance as the vehicle for the staying of the plague. Thus, the message was borne home that is neither incense that kills nor incense that preserves from death but rather one's deeds that determine his fate. It is noteworthy that in this formulation, Rashi assumes that Moshe acted under Divine inspiration by choosing the incense ("Therefore, God said in response…"), though the text is silent on this point. And again, we still do not know why Moshe initiated the contest with the incense offering.


Perhaps an alternate explanation is in order, one that takes into account the uniqueness of the incense offering in the daily ritual of the Mishkan. Consider that in contrast to the large Altar of Bronze that was found in the outer courtyard and upon which the sacrifices, primarily animal, were burnt, the incense could only be presented upon the small and precious Golden Altar that was within the space of the Holy. The fragrant combination of spices, described at length at the beginning of Parashat Ki Tisa (Shemot 30:34-38), was twice daily offered upon a layer of burning hot coals that had been especially prepared for the purpose. Morning and afternoon (Shemot 30:1-10), in perfect rhythm with the Daily Sacrifice that was celebrated upon the Bronze Altar, the Holy enclosure would fill with the ascending smoke, and the supplicant priest would bow and exit. This aromatic "cloud" of incense (Vayikra 16:12-13), of course, provided a suggestive counterpoint to the Divine cloud – the protective symbol of God's ongoing presence – that was upon the Mishkan constantly.

Although the Torah makes no explicit attempt to explain the significance of the ritual, already early on, a plausible interpretation was advanced. In a fleeting reference from the Book of Tehillim, David poetically exclaims:

God, I call out to you, hurry to save me! Listen to my voice when I cry out to you! MAY MY PRAYER FIND FAVOR BEFORE YOU AS INCENSE, THE LIFTING UP OF MY HANDS AS THE EVENING OFFERING… (Tehillim 141:1-2).

It therefore seems that the service of the incense was meant to symbolize the offering of PRAYERS to God by the people of Israel. Unlike the involved service of the tangible animal sacrifices, that had at their core the idea of substitution and submission, the incense offering consisted solely of fragrant smoke ascending from the fire, ephemeral and elusive. What more fitting symbolism could there be for the poignant prayer of the human heart, uttered silently but sincerely, daily borne aloft to God on measured breaths, as ethereal as a rising wisp of smoke?


As Moshe stood beset and besieged by Korach's rabble, their derisive plaints ringing in his ears, a feeling of intense disappointment overtook him. Hadn't he led the people selflessly? Hadn't he consistently put their interests ahead of his own, deflecting God's impatience and fury with his tearful entreaties? At the episode of the Golden Calf, it was his prayers that averted disaster (Shemot 32:7-14). At the incident of the Spies, it was his prayers that lessened the blow (Bemidbar 14:11-25). And at every other significant juncture of Israelite treachery and Divine wrath, Moshe's pleas saved the day.

Now, the people denied entry to Canaan because of their unwillingness or inability to trust in God, Korach arose from their midst to accomplish for them what Moshe could not. How eloquently he spoke on their behalf, solemnly invoking every precious principle of the just and the holy to bolster his claim that it was in reality Moshe's ongoing selfishness and conceit that had brought disaster upon them all. Moshe was devastated by the viciousness of their attack and turned to God for assistance:

Moshe was greatly aggrieved and he said to God: "do not accept their offering. I never took so much as a donkey from any of them, nor did I bring evil upon even one of them!" (Bemidbar 16:16).

Turning to Korach and to his company, all of whom cried out to the masses with so much feigned sincerity, Moshe threw down the gauntlet: "If you are truly sincere with your words, if your entreaties on behalf of the people of Israel are motivated by the selfless desire to serve, then take your firepans and your incense and appear before God. The service of the incense, as you know, is all about prayer. The ascending smoke of the fragrant spices must be matched by the earnest thoughts of the contrite heart. Let the one who stands before God with only an outward display of piety, but inwardly tainted by impure motivations and with selfish ends in mind, be incinerated by the very vehicle of devotion that he misuses to prove his virtuousness!"


Thus it was that Moshe, not needing to consult God first, suggested the only service that was appropriate under the circumstances: that of the incense. And thus it was that Moshe, as plague raged in the camp and threatened to consume the people, called upon Aharon to invoke the very same incense to preserve them from further harm. Aharon's incense offering was intended as a potent indication that HIS prayers, unlike those of Korach and his cohorts, were genuine and therefore efficacious.

The Rabbis, though perhaps impressed by the content of Korach's platform, were not sympathetic to his ends. They long ago recognized, along with every other careful reader of the text, that Korach had never been motivated by the genuine needs of the people and had never really had their legitimate interests in mind when he launched his aborted coup. Thus Korach became a paradigm in their eyes for the most dangerous of "leaders": talented individuals who manipulated the masses in order to advance their own selfish ends, ultimately bringing ruin upon their constituents and upon themselves. The offering of incense was more than just an instrument for filling God's abode with fragrant smoke; it was a tangible expression of the supplicant's most deep-seated and heartfelt desire to commune with God in prayer and to be embraced by His concern. Appropriately, then, it was the service of the incense that formed the backdrop for this episode, for more than anything else the rebellion of Korach was about the misuse of pure means to achieve nefarious ends. No wonder God commanded, after Korach and his cohorts had been incinerated by the blaze kindled by their own masked hate, that

The firepans of these transgressors in their hearts shall be made into beaten plates to cover the altar…as a reminder to the people of Israel that no outsider who is not a descendent of Aharon shall draw close in order to offer incense before God. Let him not become like Korach and his congregation…

Shabbat Shalom