In this week’s portion, Tetzaveh, the Torah states: “Aaron shall burn incense each morning when he cleans the lamps. And he shall burn incense in the evening when he kindles the lamps.” What purpose did the burning of incense serve in the Sanctuary, and later, in the First and Second Holy Temples? Furthermore, what can we learn from this to apply in our daily lives?
First of all, it is important to note that the command to build the incense altar and bring its offering are mentioned in the Torah as the final elements in the construction of the Sanctuary. In fact, the Divine Presence did not rest in the Sanctuary until the incense offering was brought.
What is the reason for this uniqueness? Our Sages explain that the sacrifices offered on the altar in the courtyard of the Sanctuary relate to a Jew’s body, while the incense offering brought on the inner altar relates to a Jew’s soul.
This concept is reflected in the Hebrew names used to describe these different offerings. The Hebrew word for “sacrifice” is “korban,” which has its root in the word “karov,” meaning “close.” In contrast, the Hebrew for “incense” offering, “ketoret,” relates to the root “ketar,” Aramaic for “bond.” By bringing a sacrifice, a Jew draws close to G-d. Through the incense offering, however, a Jew and G-d become fused in total unity.
Thus, it is only after the Torah describes the preparations necessary for the Sanctuary, whose purpose is to make it possible for the Divine Presence to dwell among – and thus within – the Jewish people, that it mentions the incense offering, which allows for a bond of oneness to be established between them.
This theme of oneness is also reflected in the dimensions of the incense altar, which measured one cubit by one cubit. Likewise, when the incense offering was brought, the priest making the offering was alone with G-d. No one else was allowed to assist.
These concepts must be paralleled in our daily service of G-d. Every day, a person arises as “a new creation.” Every day, therefore, we must renew our inner bond with G-d as expressed by the recitation, in our daily prayers, of the verses concerning the bringing of the incense offering, and how that offering was brought in connection with the cleaning and the kindling of the Menora. This teaches us that the bond between us and G-d must be extended into our worldly affairs, causing them to be carried out in the spirit of “All your deeds shall be for the sake of Heaven,” and “Know Him in all your ways.”