There is a structural oddity found in Parshas Tetzaveh. In last week’s parsha, Terumah, the Torah discusses at length all the various keilim of the Mishkan. The Torah then moves on in Tetzaveh to discuss the clothing of the Kohein Gadol, until the end of the parsha, at which point it resumes its discussion of the keilim by speaking about the mizbeach ha’ketores. We must then ask the obvious question: Why is the mizbeach ha’ketores separated from all the other keilim? Why is the Torah broken up this way?
Certainly, this is not a new question; there are many answers proposed. The general idea amongst most all of them is that the mizbeach ha’ketores is in some way more climactic than the other keilim, and is thus saved for the end.
Herein we shall focus on the idea that the mizbeach ha’ketores produced two things: a nice smell, and smoke. From this we hope to answer our question, and see some truly incredible ideas along the way.
As a whole, the various keilim were meant as a means of seeing God as present and imminent on Earth. The Mishkan was a meeting point between Man and God, and the keilim were the conduits of this.
After discussing all other aspects of the Mishkan, the mizbeach ha’ketores is then introduced so as to temper this perspective. Despite all of the clarity than can be achieved via the Mishkan, it is ultimately all covered in a smoke screen, so to speak. There is a limit to even what the Mishkan can accomplish for Man. The keilim were meant as a means of bringing God into this world; nevertheless, the vision is still going to be obscured.
This is all to say that, perhaps, the mizbeach ha’ketores is separated from the rest of the keilim because it is itself quite separate. While the other keilim were meant as a way to bring God into this world, the mizbeach ha’ketores was there instead to temper this, to show that even in moments of great clarity there will always be only so much that humans are capable of perceiving.
A different approach is to point out that all keilim exist to help serve God. They exist as a way to approach the Divine. The ketores, however, has no such purpose. The pleasant smell that it produces is nice, no doubt, but its primary goal is simply to glorify the Mishkan, and by extension, God.
While one of the goals in observing the laws of God is to improve ourselves, sooner or later we are meant to graduate to the level of the ketores — namely, doing things solely for God. We might not get much out of it, but the Mishkan will smell better, and be glorified and beautified because of it. Many would suggest that this is a higher level of service of God.
Understanding The Five Senses
One of the very first ideas introduced in the entire Torah is exceptionally bizarre. Korbanos, and indeed the ketores, are described throughout the Torah as an “ishei reiach nichoach l’HaShem”, or “a fiery, pleasing odor to God.” This is an incredibly well-known and common expression — one of the most repeated refrains in all of Chumash — but upon even a moment of reflection it seems incredibly strange.
It would appear, then, that the purpose of animal sacrifice is that God enjoys the smell that it produces. Certainly, a good steak smells great, but is this the purpose of the entire institution of korbanos? Surely, if all one could talk about after a visit to the Mishkan or Beis HaMikdash was how good it smelled we would be certain that he or she missed the entire point! The pleasant aroma the roasted meat produces must be incidental — it couldn’t possibly be fundamental!
Yet, R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch points out (in his commentary on Bereishis) that, as odd as it might be, it must be so. It is repeated so often in Chumash that we cannot run away from it. We must then explain the importance of “reiach nichoach”.
All humans perceive the world through the five senses. There are only five ways in which a human can interact with anything. Yet, R’ Hirsch explains, we can really group the five senses into two fundamental categories.
Two of the five senses require direct and intense contact with that which one is sensing: touching and tasting. One cannot touch something unless it comes into direct contact with one’s hands/fingers; one cannot taste something unless it comes into direct contact with his or her tongue. Until direct contact is made, one cannot say that one knows how something tastes or feels.
In stark contrast to this are the senses of sight and sound. When one hears or sees something, there is absolutely no direct interaction with the thing being perceived.
The question is as follows: Into which of these two categories does the sense of smell fall? Well, the answer is both.
How does one smell things? What actually enters into one’s nose upon smelling something? When it comes to touch or taste, the object itself comes into contact with the sensors. With sight, only light hits the retina; with hearing, only sound waves hit the eardrum. But what of smell?
When one smells something, surely the entire object itself does not enter the nose. But to say that none of the object enters the nose is not quite accurate either. Instead, the tiniest molecules of, say, that freshly baked cookie enter into one’s nostrils. The full object could be quite a few feet away, yet the smallest bits of said object do indeed enter the nose upon smelling. When it comes to smelling, there is not fully direct interaction, but there is also not zero interaction either.
Back To Korbanos
R’ Hirsch uses this idea to explain the entire enterprise of korbanos in Judaism. Korbanos are exactly a reiach nichoach, a pleasant smell to God — they are simply the tip of the iceberg, the smallest particles of something greater to come. We do not merely offer God a decapitated goat; it is instead seen as the tiniest molecule, the tiniest hint, of the depth of the offering that we hope to bring in time. God encounters korbanos as a smell; Korbanos are not the finished product. The offerer’s work is far from over. Korbanos are promises of something more to come.
We are not meant to bring a korban and walk away feeling our work is done. Far from it; we are instead meant to see korbanos as a signal to God that “this is just the beginning” and that “the best is yet to come.” And though it may be but a smell right now, it is a pleasing one to God. The mere pleasant smell of the korban implies and beckons something even greater to come.
Indeed, the same is true when it comes to the ketores in Tetzaveh. The Torah concludes its discussion of the mishkan with the ketores so as to use it as exclamation point to encapsulate the entire endeavor. The mishkan is meant to be but the tiniest piece of something that promises to be much greater even when one is no longer physically in the presence of the mishkan.
A Different Perspective
R’ Moshe Benovitz points out that this is an incredibly humbling and inspiring way to look at the performance of all mitzvos. Mitzvos can, and perhaps should, be seen as not the finished product, but rather as the tiniest hint of infinite promise and extraordinary potential yet to come.
What God encounters when He is brought a korban is merely a molecule of the offerer’s potential. He does not receive the whole thing. The offerer does not even know what “the whole thing” is yet. God tells the offerer, however, that the small amount that He did smell was pleasing to Him.
God has encountered the beginning of something taking shape, and now waits to see the rest of it.