וידבר ה' אל משה לאמר. הרמו מתוך העדה הזאת ואכלה אתם כרגע ויפלו על פניהם. ויאמר משה אל אהרן קח את המחתה ותן עליה אש מעל המזבח ושים קטרת והולך מהרה אל העדה וכפר עליהם כי יצא הקצף מלפני ה' החל הנגף. ויקח אהרן כאשר דבר משה וירץ אל תוך הקהל והנה החל הנגף בעם ויתן את הקטרת ויכפר על העם. ויעמד בין המתים ובין החיים ותעצר המגפה.
Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, ”Ascend from among this congregation, and I will destroy them in an instant.“ And they fell on their faces [in prayer]. Moshe said to Aharon, ”Take the pan and place on it fire from the Mizbeiach and place ketores. Then quickly go to the congregation and atone for them, for fury has gone forth from Hashem. The plague has begun!“ Aharon took [the pan] as Moshe had spoken and ran to the midst of the congregation; and behold, the plague had begun among the nation. He placed the ketores and atoned for the nation. He stood between the dead and living, and the plague was halted.”
Rashi explains that when Moshe ascended to Heaven to receive the Torah, the Angel of Death revealed to him the power of ketores to halt deadly plagues. Rashi further explains that Hashem specifically wanted the ketores to be the means of Bnei Yisroel’s salvation from the plague, since it had previously been the cause of death for Nadav, Aviyahu and Korach’s followers. Hashem wanted Bnei Yisroel to realize that it was not ketores that brought death, since it was equally potent to save life. Rather, it was their sins that had cause their death.
What is the dual nature of ketores to on the one hand cause death while on the other save lives? The Arizal notes that first letters of the possuk ישימו קטורת באפיך - “They shall place ketores before Your Presence,” are יבק, which equal in gematria the combination of Hashem’s two Names: יקוק and אלקים. The Arizal adds that this is the source of ketores’ power to “sweeten harsh judgments.”
The Name יקוק represents Hashem’s attribute of mercy, while the Name אלקים represents His attribute of strict judgment. Both properties were found together, in perfect harmony and balance, in the ketores of the Beis HaMikdash. Therefore, it had the power to kill or save, depending on the circumstances. When ketores is offered improperly, with impure intent, it awakens harsh judgment to an intensified, inharmonious degree. However, when ketores is offered properly, with holiness and purity, it “sweetens the harsh judgments,” revealing Hashem’s ultimate kindness and sweeping away all pain and distress. Judgment is then subjugated to mercy, and both join together to draw down a flow of Heavenly kindness.
Why was Moshe’s ascent to Heaven chosen as the appropriate time to reveal to him this secret? When Moshe prepared to receive the Torah on behalf of the Jewish people, it was crucial that he then realize the delicate balance between life and death, between mercy and judgment, between Hashem’s favor and His fury.
The Midrash states:
התורה ניתנה באש במים ובמדבר, משל למהלך במדבר מימינו אש ולשמאלו מים, אם נוטה הוא לימין נשרף באש, נוטה הוא לשמאל טובע במים.
The Torah was given amidst fire, water and desert. This can be compared to a person who walks through the desert with fire to his right and water to his left. If he veers to the right, he will be burned. If he veers to the left, he will drown.
Like ketores, Torah presents a delicate balance between life and death. If a person studies Torah properly, it becomes a life-giving elixir, but if he studies it improperly, it becomes a deadly poison. Our Sages warn that if a person studies Torah to achieve a position of authority by which he can cause dissent in his community, it would be better if he had never been born. The Vilna Gaon writes that Torah is compared to water in that it causes the seeds of a person’s latent character traits to sprout. If a person has a kind and gentle disposition, the Torah will embellish these traits and help him grow into a wonderful, pleasant person. However, if he is selfish and arrogant, the Torah can cause these bad traits to fester and lead to his ultimate ruin, as the possuk states, “The ways of Hashem are straight. The righteous will walk in them, while the wicked will stumble on them.” Therefore, the Vilna Gaon advises that before and after studying Torah each day, a person should inspect his character and uproot his negative traits. Otherwise, his Torah study could actually damage his personality.
Moshe Rabbeinu was given the Torah together with the secret of the ketores to warn him that they both are like a Tree of Life rooted at the edge of a yawning chasm. Great reward awaits those who approach them properly, while utter destruction threatens those who blindly stumble ahead.
Another aspect of the ketores’ ability to divert Hashem’s fury can be understood in the context the parshah. We find the ketores atoning for the sins of Korach’s followers, namely for the machlokes, the destructive, senseless dispute which they generated. The word ketores in Aramaic means “knot,” symbolizing the power of ketores to draw people together in a bond of unity. Among the eleven ingredients of ketores is the foul-smelling galbanum. From here our Sages learn that we must include sinners in the prayer gatherings assembled on fast days. Despite their many flaws, they are still part of our nation, and we must find a way to weave them into our communities. Ketores has the power to unite Klal Yisroel and reveal that even the sinners among us have many fine traits, such that even they are “filled with mitzvos like a pomegranate is filled with seeds.” By searching for the good among those we despise - the foul-smelling galbanum among us - we unite together as one nation and merit thereby the atonement and Heavenly favor symbolized by the ketores.
The Zohar writes as follows:
ויעמד בין המתים ובין החיים ותעצר המגפה. אמר רבי יוסי אין לך דבר השובר את סטרא אחרא כקטרת .... לפי שאין לך דבר חביב לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא כקטרת. היא עשויה לבטל כשפים ודברים רעים מן הבית, שהרי ריח ועשן בשמים שעושים אנשים, יש בהם לבטל דברים רעים, וכל שכן הקטרת. דבר זה גזרה היא מלפני הקדוש ברוך הוא, שכל מי שמכון וקורא בכל יום את מעשה הקטרת, ינצל מכל דברים רעים וכשפים שבעולם, ומכל פגעים רעים, ומהרהור רע, ומדין רע וממגפה, ולא ינזק כל היום ההוא, שלא יוכל הסטרא אחרא לשלוט בו. וצריך שיכון באמירתו.
אמר רבי שמעון אם היו בני אדם יודעים כמה עלאי הוא מעשה הקטרת לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא, היו נוטלים כל תבה ותבה ממנו, והיו מעלים אותה עטרה על ראשם ככתר של זהב, ומי שעוסק באמירתו, צריך להתבונן במעשה הקטרת. ואם יכון בו בכל יום, יש לו חלק בעולם הזה ובעולם הבא, ותבטל מיתה ממנו ומן העולם, וינצל מכל דיני העולם הזה, מצדדים רעים, ומדין גיהנם ומדין מלכות אחרת.
“And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was halted.” Rebbe Yossi said: There is nothing as powerful as ketores to break the sitra achra … since there is nothing so precious before HaKadosh Baruch Hu as ketores. It dispels witchcraft and evil from the home. Even the fragrance and smoke of ordinary incense can undo evil forces; all the more so ketores.
So it was decreed from before HaKadosh Baruch Hu that anyone who concentrates while daily reciting the Torah portion of the ketores will be rescued from all the evil and witchcraft in the world, from all misfortune, from evil thoughts, from evil judgment and from plagues, and he will not be harmed that entire day, since the stira achra will have no power over him. However, he must concentrate while reciting it.
Rebbe Shimon (bar Yochai) said: Were people to realize how esteemed the ketores is before HaKadosh Baruch Hu, they would take each and every word of it and place them like golden crowns on their heads. Anyone who recites it must contemplate how the ketores was offered. If he concentrates on this each day, he will have a portion in this world and the next and will drive death away from himself and the world. He will be rescued from all the harsh judgments of this world, from evil mishaps, from the judgment of Gehinnom, and from the judgment of the foreign kingship.
Fruit and Flowers of Priesthood
After Bnei Yisroel challenged Aharon’s position as Kohen Gadol, Hashem instructed them to make a final test by which Aharon’s position would be proven once and for all. The leader of each Tribe placed his staff in the Mishkan, with Aharon’s staff among them representing the Tribe of Levi. A miracle then occurred in which Aharon’s staff sprouted flowers and almonds, signifying that he and his tribe had been chosen by Hashem.
The Rashbam notes two aspects of this miracle. Firstly, it was miraculous that a stick of dry wood suddenly sprouted flowers and almonds. Secondly, the flower usually falls off as the fruit or nut begins to develop. In this case, Aharon’s stick bore flowers and almonds together. What was the unique significance of this sign, and why was it chosen to answer the challenge against Aharon’s priesthood?
There were two aspects to Aharon’s role as Kohen Gadol. On one hand, he made an outward display of “kavod u’tifares - honor and splendor” by wearing glorious raiment made of gold, techeiles and precious stones. The Ramban explains that these were the kinds of clothes worn by kings at that time.
On the other hand, and more significantly, he offered korbanos to atone for Bnei Yisroel and disseminated Torah among them, as the possuk states, כי שפתי כהן ישמרו דעת ותורה יבקש מפיהו - “For the lips of the Kohen will guard wisdom, and you shall seek Torah from his mouth.”
Korach envied the glorious clothes of the Priesthood and the honor that they bespoke, but he did not realize that they were no mere superficial display of prestige. Aharon merited the Priestly garments as a result of his constant effort to improve his character, help other people, teach Torah, and serve Hashem in holiness and purity. When Aharon was first informed that his younger brother Moshe would be the king and savior of Bnei Yisroel, his heart overflowed with joy. Moshe feared that Aharon might be jealous of him, but Aharon had risen above these traits. Rashi tells us that in reward for his selflessness, Aharon merited to wear the Choshen (jeweled breastplate) on his heart.
So, too, did each of the Priestly garments atone for a specific sin or character flaw. The trousers atoned for indecency; the hat atoned for arrogance; the belt atoned for impure thoughts; the coat atoned for lashon hara; the tzitz atoned for brazenness. Aharon merited to wear these garments, since he strove to perfect himself in these areas and inspired others to do the same.
Without the inner service of the heart, any outer display of grandeur is shallow and worthless. Korach desired only the honor of the Priesthood without the character improvement that this demanded. Therefore, his bid was doomed to failure.
The flowers on Aharon’s staff represented the outer beauty, honor and splendor of the Priesthood and the Mishkan, while the almonds represented the “fruit” of this beauty – the practical benefit that gave substance and meaning to the outer display. Rav Yehuda HaLevi composed a poem in which he said of Greek philosophy, “Do not be swayed by the wisdom of the Greeks, which has only flowers, but no fruit.” In other words, it seems graceful and beautiful from without, but it has no substance within.
To symbolize Aharon’s singular greatness in both aspects of Priesthood and the perfect balance between his depth of character and his outward display of grandeur, his staff grew flowers and almonds together, thus proving for all generations to come that he had truly earned his position as Kohen Gadol.
 Bamidbar 17:9-13
 See Shabbos
 Shemos Rabba 3:6
 Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar
 Shabbos 88b; Taanis 7a
 Berachos 17a, Tosefos s.v. Ha’oseh
 Even Shleimah 1:11
 Taanis 7a
 Hosheiah 14:10
 Krisos 6b
 Berachos 57a
 Lit. the “other side”, a figurative representation of evil
 Zohar, Vayakhel 218b
 Shemos 28:2
 Malachi 2:7
 Shemos 4:14
 Zevachim 88b