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15 June 2018

Parshas Korach and the Ketores

By Roy S. Neuberger

What can we learn from the frightening events described in Parshas Korach?

It is said that the Yismach Moshe zt”l was once learning the parsha of Korach with his young grandson (the future Yetev Lev), who made a comment showing that he did not think much of Korach. At that point the Yismach Moshe admonished him, saying that we have no understanding of the greatness of Korach. In fact, added the Yismach Moshe, he himself was a gilgul from the Dor HaMidbar and had not been sure whom to follow, since this seemed to be a valid argument between the two greatest men of the generation. His grandson then asked him, "If so, what did you do and how did you save yourself?" The Yismach Moshe answered, "Not wanting to be part of the machlokes, I ran into my tent and closed the entrance tightly. I refused to come out until it was all over.”

How do we discern who Hashem has designated to lead us? The Torah reveals a fascinating device by which we can discover the proper path. “Do this: take for yourselves fire-pans … and put fire in them and place incense upon them before Hashem tomorrow.” (Bamidbar 16:6)

“Here you have … ketores, which is the dearest of all the offerings….” (Rashi on Bamidbar 16:6)

Why is ketores called “the dearest of all offerings?”

“Among all the sacrifices that were offered in the Holy Temple, none was as precious before G-d as ketores…an enlightened remedy to purify people from sin. Whoever smelled the fragrance of the incense …would have thoughts of repentance. His heart would be purified of all evil thoughts and from the defilement of the Evil Inclination…. The incense had the power to break and subjugate the power of the Evil Inclination… In the time of plague there is no remedy better than the ketores. This was a gift that the Malach Hamoves gave Moshe when he went on High to receive the Torah.” (Yalkut Meam Loez on Bamidbar 16:6)

I believe that ketores is the only korban which involves such a delicate and exact combination of many ingredients which are combined by the hand of man according to the instructions of the Torah. One could say that ketores is like someone who is trying to refine his personality. He determines that he needs a little more of this midah and a little less of that midah. He works on himself, trying to attain a perfect combination of traits whose “aroma” is pleasing to Hashem and to his fellow man.

“Who is destined for a share in the World to Come? One who is modest and humble, who enters bowing and leaves bowing, who learns Torah constantly but doesn’t take credit for himself.” (Sanhedrin 88b)

Do you think this happens by itself? No! This person worked on himself his entire life.

I remember reading that a bochur once said to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l something like, “I wish I had a personality like Rebbe’s, who is always so calm and pleasant to everyone.” Reb Moshe replied, “Do you think I have such a personality? I have a terrible temper! I have worked on myself my entire life to control it!”

The ketores resembles a beautiful Torah personality, with all the midos perfectly blended in a way which gives nachas to the Ribono shel Olam. It teaches us to “mix” carefully and precisely when working on ourselves.

What does this have to do with Korach?

“Nothing but jealousy of the priestly honor conferred on the tribe of Aharon … had brought [Korach] to rebellion…. Very well, then, if [Korach’s followers] are really convinced of the truth of their assertions let them dare put them to the test and … approach Hashem with a High-Priestly function. The epitome of the High-Priestly office … is ketores, [which symbolizes] the highest degree of [dedication] … to giving satisfaction to Hashem. [Ketores is completely consumed, leaving no residue.]” (Rabbi S. R. Hirsch zt”l on Bamidbar 16:6-7)

The ketores represented submission to the will of Hashem. When it came to the Mishkan, one could not dissemble. The Shechina dwelt there! If you acted with sheker you would be destroyed! This happened with Nadav and Avihu. “Two threads of fire emerged from the Kodesh Hakadoshim and split into four. Two entered this one’s nose (Nadav) and two entered this one’s nose (Avihu) and burned them ….” (Sanhedrin 52a)

Hashem breathed our neshoma into us through our nostrils (Beraishis 2:7). When Shabbos departs, we revive our neshoma by inhaling the aroma of spices. The ketores reflects the neshoma, whose “aroma” must be beautiful and pleasing.

When the Bais Hamikdosh burned and we were scattered to arba kanfos ha-aretz, we lost everything! “From the day the Temple was destroyed, there is no day without its curse …. When Rabbi Yehoshua died, goodness ceased from the world…. When Rabbi Akiva died, the glory of the Torah disappeared…. With the footsteps of Moshiach, insolence will increase …. The face of the generation will be like the face of the dog [and] the son is not ashamed before his father. On whom can we rely? Only on our Father in Heaven!” (Mishnayos Sota 9:12-15)

My friends, we need the Bais Hamikdosh! We need the ketores!

“What is something from which the soul derives pleasure but the body does not derive pleasure? This is fragrant smell. … Rav Zutra bar Toviyah said in the name of Rav: The young men of Israel will in the future emit a fragrance like the Lebanon, as it is stated, ‘His young shall go forth and his beauty shall be like the olive tree, and his aroma like the Lebanon.’” (Berachos 43b)

May we inhale this perfect fragrance soon in our days!

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Roy Neuberger, author and public speaker, can be reached at

© Copyright 2018 by Roy S. Neuberger

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