They call it a “Doomsday Weapon”. In Hebrew, it’s called “Neshek Yom HaDin”. It’s the weapon that you have in your arsenal that you never intend to use and you never hope to use. It’s the weapon that is taken out of storage only if a truly existential threat is being faced. It’s the weapon that could very well harm the user as much as it harms the one against whom it is used. And Moshe uses it twice in one day.
I am referring, of course, to the incense (ketoret). The incense was offered daily in the Beit HaMikdash on the golden incense altar, and once a year, on Yom Kippur, it was offered in the Holy of Holies. The incense had to be offered at the right time and by the right person. If one of these conditions were not met, certain death would result. When Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu offer a [Vayikra 10:1] “strange fire that they were not commanded” they are struck dead. When an unworthy Kohen Gadol offered the incense on Yom Kippur his corpse would be pulled from the Holy of Holies by a rope tied around his waist. This is the Doomsday Weapon that Moshe uses when Korach stages a mutiny. Moshe tells Korach that he and his men should try offering incense and “we’ll see what happens”.
The amazing thing is that Moshe does this without consulting Hashem. And what is even more amazing is that Korach goes along with Moshe without any wavering. Is Korach really that drunk with power? Doesn’t he understand that the misuse of incense is a death sentence? And then Moshe goes and uses it again! After Korach and his followers are killed, the people accuse Moshe and Aharon of murder and a plague ensues. Moshe tells Aharon to quickly offer incense because otherwise everyone is going to die. Aharon takes a fire pan of incense into the middle of the camp and the plague stops as suddenly as it began. Again, Moshe does not consult Hashem. Try rereading the previous few sentences and replace the word “incense” with the word “plutonium” and you begin to see that Moshe is playing with fire.
The Midrash explains why Moshe used the incense to stop the plague: After Korach was killed, the people became deathly afraid of incense. Moshe wanted to teach the people that is was not the incense that kills or heals, but, rather, it is sin that kills. How did Moshe know this? The Midrash, as brought by Rashi, teaches that the Angel of Death whispered this to Moshe when he was on Mount Sinai. But what is the source of this Midrash?
In order to address these questions we must understand the physics and the metaphysics of incense. A good place to start is with an explanation by Rav Ezra Bick of a word frequently used in the description of the offering of sacrifices. The word in question is “hiktir”. This word appears all over the Book of Vayikra, as in [Vayikra 1:9] “[The Kohen] hiktir the offering on the altar”. Most people translate the word as “burnt”. That’s what you do to a sacrifice: you burn it on the altar. My trusty chabad.org on-line Tanach, however, translates the word as “caused to [go up in] smoke”. Rav Bick notes that while this translation seems so obvious, it has completely changed the way he in which understands the entire basis of sacrifices.
What is the difference between “burning” and “turning to smoke”? Isn’t one the outcome of the other? Well, for one thing, “burning” is a negative action while “turning to smoke” is a positive action. We don’t want to destroy the animal – we want to transform the animal into smoke. Physically speaking, when a piece of meat is burnt a solid is transformed into a gas. Metaphysically speaking, the gaseous state is as close as matter can get to spirit. Both have no physical form, so to speak. Indeed, the Hebrew word “ruach” means both “wind” and “spirit”. This spirit/gas is the [Vayikra 1:9] “Rai’ach nicho’ach” – “pleasing fragrance” – that is offered up to Hashem.
To summarize, the offering of a sacrifice transforms and elevates the meat of an animal – the most banal source of matter – into spirit. In some way, this transformation enables us to bridge the infinite gap between ourselves and the Divine. Rav Bick concludes by noting that this bridge is a two-way bridge. Not only does it bring man closer to Hashem but it brings Hashem closer to man.
Rav Bick concludes here, but we’re going to take his conclusion a little further. Sacrifices are offered in two phases: first the animal is slaughtered and its blood is sprinkled on the altar. Afterwards, the animal is “turned to smoke” on the altar. Incense, on the other hand, has only one purpose: it is meant to be turned into smoke. It has no other physical use. This being so, incense has the metaphysical capability to bridge the infinite gap between man and Hashem in a way that nothing else on this earth can. The burning of the incense is a vehicle that brings man as physically close as he can get to actually touching Hashem. If a sacrifice is the equivalent of Uranium, then incense is the equivalent of refined weapons-grade Plutonium. This can explain both the destructive and healing power of incense: when man comes in close proximity to Hashem, his worthiness determines his fate. If he is a sinner, then the closeness will cause his immediate death. If he is a righteous person, then the closeness will be an unparalleled spiritually uplifting experience. Make no mistake: the incense is not a Doomsday Weapon. It is not the incense that kills, it is sin that kills.
I suggest that the source for this physical / metaphysical mechanism of incense can be found in the beginning of Parashat Acharei Mot, where Hashem addresses Moshe and Aharon after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Hashem tells them [Vayikra 16:2] “[Do] not come at all times into the Holy… so that [you] should not die, for I appear over the ark cover in a cloud”. The only time he may enter is on Yom Kippur, and he must come equipped with burning incense. The Hebrew word “be’anan” has been translated as “in a cloud”, meaning that the Holy Presence manifests itself as a cloud that hung over the ark. However, it is also possible to translate “be’anan” as “by means of a cloud”, meaning that by means of the cloud of incense the Holy Presence can actually touch our mundane physical world. The gas / spirit of the incense bridges between the two worlds.
Now let’s return to Parashat Korach.
- When Moshe challenges Korach to a hand-to-hand duel of incense, he is trying to determine whether Korach’s mutiny is based in truth or in falsehood. If, as Korach suggests, [Bemidbar 16:3] “the entire congregation is holy”, then offering the incense will be a rewarding experience for all. If not, then Korach’s followers will die. It’s really just a question of physics (and metaphysics). Moshe does not need to consult with Hashem. The incense is the ultimate consultation.
- Korach agrees with Moshe’s plan because he believes in the justness of his cause and in the purity of heart of his followers. He is not misusing He is using incense to prove his point. In fact, the successful use of incense could crown him king without spilling a drop of blood. Unfortunately, the two hundred and fifty men who offered the incense were lacking in cardiac purity.
- As for Moshe’s second use of incense, he knew that Aharon’s heart was pure, and that if Aharon were to offer incense then a two-way conduit to the Divine would be opened. Through this conduit the plague would be stopped and the people would be healed.
Incense opens up an autobahn between man and the Divine. It makes us ask ourselves if we know where we’re going and if we are really prepared to make the journey.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka.
 Most of the commentators, including Rav David Tzvi Hoffman and Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, explain that the “strange fire” is actually incense.
 This happened regularly in the time of the second Beit HaMikdash, when the role of Kohen Gadol was given to the best connected and the most wealthy, and not to the most righteous.
 This gas also has small particulate matter floating in it, but let’s not be picky, here.