Rabbi Yakov Haber
The Mystery of the Ketores
Ketores, the mixture of incense offered twice daily in the Mishkan and later in the more permanent Mikdash, plays a prominent role in Parashas Korach. It is both the means of proving the chosenness of Aharon, simultaneously leading to the death of Korach and his followers, (Korach 16:17, 35) as well as the tool for stopping the plague befalling the Jewish people when they accused Moshe and Aharon of killing Korach and his allies (17:11-12). This contradictory nature of the ketores as a vehicle of execution and as a method of salvation requires elucidation.
The twice daily ketores service is shrouded in secrecy. Its very nature, causing a screen of aromatic smoke, detectible by the senses of sight and smell, but yet ephemeral, not quite physical, untouchable but certainly real, is mysterious. It is one of the primary services on Yom Kippur in the holiest place on earth, the kodesh kodashim - "and the cloud of incense shall cover the cover of the (Ark of) Testimony" (Acharei Mos 16:13).
Much has been written about this topic. Here we will try to present some of the salient themes and connect them to the famous treatment of Parashas Korach presented by Rav Y. D. Soloveitchik zt"l.
Many commentaries note the theme of Jewish national unity inherent within the ketores. The component spices number eleven, ten sweet-smelling spices plus the chelb'na, a foul-smelling ingredient. They represent the Jewish community, symbolized by the number ten, the minimum microcosm of an eida, a representative community. The chelb'na represents the wicked who have temporarily divorced themselves from the community but must be included since they too must and will return to the fold. The offering of the ketores represents in a sense, the offering of K'nesses Yisrael, the totality of the Jewish people to HKB"H. The great love of HKB"H for his nation and even the wicked among them is thus actively demonstrated twice daily and once a year in the inner chamber, in the presence of the keruvim representing this love.
Others note that the ketores represents the Jewish soul, whereas korbanos, brought mostly from animals, represent the body. Sacrificing forbidden desire in the service of G-d and channeling permitted desire toward Divine service are represented by the korbanos. Wholehearted devotion of the totality of our inner personality is represented by the ketores. King David describes the almost indescribable yearning of the soul for G-d by comparing it to the instinctual drive of the deer for water, "as the deer longs for the brooks of water, so too my soul longs for you, G-d!" (T'hillim 42:2). Seifer Tanya speaks of the ahava m'suteres, the hidden love, the soul feels for G-d, ever-present yet hidden, mysterious, and often inaccessible, just like the aromatic smoke of ketores. This also highlights the great love between the Jewish people, both individually and collectively, and HKB"H.
The Torah is the greatest expression of this Divine love. In the language of the Gemara (Shabbos 105a), the first word of the Divine, national revelation, "Anochi", "A-N-Ch-I," can be interpreted as an acrostic, "ana nafshi k'savis y'havis", I have given over myself, kiv'yachol, in the Torah. The Divine dictates in the Torah, when studied and performed precisely as commanded, connect us intensely to their Author. Rav Soloveitchik presented the central duality of mitzvah performance on the one hand coupled with the "great romance" inherent with that performance. Korach's "common-sense rebellion" sought to skip the precise mitzvah performance and aim straight for the "great romance". If the t'cheiles is supposed to remind us of Divine majesty, would not an entirely blue garment serve this purpose better? Why the need for the "detail" of the blue string? (See Rashi to 16:1.) Moshe's response implied, "Yes, there is a 'great romance' inherent within mitzvah performance. But, in order to achieve that, the precise 'mitzvah act' must be primary, not secondary." Based on Rav Soloveitchik's approach, perhaps we can suggest a reason that the ketores was so prominent in crushing the Korach rebellion and in stopping the plague. For it represents the enormous love of HKB"H for K'lal Yisrael and vice versa. This love stopped the plague. This same representation of this love, which Korach attempted to pervert and invert, destroyed him.
Rav Soloveitchik further explained that the menora with its illumination, its precise form and design, represents exact mitzvah performance, dikdukei mitzvos; the ketores whose smoke had an imprecise shape and was not comparable to other physical objects, represents the religious feeling and experience. Both were offered at the same time in the morning and evening (T'tzaveh 30:7-8), since both form crucial components of the framework of our 'avodas Hashem. To quote the powerful, eloquent words of the Rav:
What does ketores represent? The hidden and the intimate the mysterium magnum of creation and the mysterium tremendum of Divine presence in creation and beyond. ... Ketores tells us the great story of human craving for G-d ...for the Beginning of All... of tragic human waiting for an ecstatic unity with the Almighty. The colorful religious experience is represented by ketores. The clear, intelligent religious fact and intelligent action is represented by the menora. The Torah, however, admonished us that the burning of the incense be coordinated with the lighting: The mystery feeling with the clarity of thinking and acting; the excitement and passion of craving be united with the serenity and peace of halachic comprehension and halachic implementation. Both are necessary. ... Yet ketores cannot be separated from hadlakas haneiros. The subjective must never be isolated from the objective. ... the halachic detail and the halachic precision is necessary for one who wants to obtain a great, colorful religious experience."
 See Likutei Moharan 173, among others, who interpret this Gemara as presented above. Also see the Tefilas HaSh'la for children who makes this general point as well.
 The second blessing preceding k'rias sh'ma, ahava rabba and ahavas 'olam, highlight the Torah as a manifestation of Divine love.
 The common modern notion of jumping to Kabbala study and ideas without emphasis on limud halacha and dikduk b'mitzvos also seems to be a manifestation of this problem.