And he shall take a censer-full of burning coals from the altar, and the fill of his hands of finely-ground ketoret; and he shall bring [these] inside the curtain.

And he shall place the ketoret upon the fire before G‑d; and the cloud of the incense shall envelop the covering of the [Ark of] Testimony.

Leviticus 16:12-13

Man’s quest to serve his Creator is perpetual and all-consuming, and can be pursued by all people, at all times, and in all places. There was one event, however, that represented the apogee in the human effort to come close to G‑d—an event that brought together the holiest day of the year, the holiest human being on earth, and the holiest place in the universe: on Yom Kippur the Kohen Gadol (“High Priest”) would enter the innermost chamber of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the “Holy of Holies,” to offer ketoret to G‑d.

The offering of the ketoret was the most prestigious and sacred of the services in the Holy Temple. The ketoret was a special blend of eleven herbs and balms whose precise ingredients and manner of preparation were commanded by G‑d to Moses. Twice a day, ketoret was burned on the “golden altar” that stood in the Temple. On Yom Kippur, in addition to the regular ketoret offerings, the Kohen Gadol would enter the Holy of Holies with a pan of smoldering coals in his right hand and a ladle filled with ketoret in his left; there, he would scoop the ketoret into his hands, place it over the coals, wait for the chamber to fill with the fragrant smoke of the burning incense, and swiftly back out of the room. The moment marked the climax of the Yom Kippur service in the Holy Temple.

Maimonides describes the function of the ketoret as the vanquishing of the unpleasant odors that might otherwise have pervaded the Holy Temple. “Since many animals were slaughtered in the sacred place each day, their flesh butchered and burnt and their intestines cleaned, its smell would doubtless have been like the smell of a slaughterhouse.... Therefore G‑d commanded that the ketoret be burned twice a day, each morning and afternoon, to lend a pleasing fragrance to [the Holy Temple] and to the garments of those who served in it.”

But Maimonides’ words carry a significance that extends beyond their superficial sense. In the words of Rabbeinu Bechayei, “G‑d forbid that the great principle and mystery of the ketoret should be reduced to this mundane purpose.”

Chassidic teaching explains that the animal sacrifices offered in the Holy Temple represent the person’s offering of his own “animal soul” to G‑d—the subjugation of his natural instincts and desires to the divine will. This is the deeper significance of the “foul odor” emitted by the sacrifices which the ketoret came to dispel: the “animal soul” of man, which is the basic drive, common to every living creature, for self-preservation and self-enhancement, possesses many positive traits which can be directed toward gainful and holy ends; but it is also the source of many negative and destructive traits. When a person brings his animal self to the Temple of G‑d and offers what is best and finest in it upon the altar, there is still the “foul odor”--the selfishness, the brutality and the materiality of the animal in man—that accompanies the process. Hence the burning of the ketoret, which possessed the unique capability to sublimate the evil odor of the animal soul within its heavenly fragrance.

Essence and Utility

This, however, still does not define the essence of the ketoret. For if the more external parts of the Temple might be susceptible to the foul odor emitted by the “animal souls” offered there, the Holy of Holies was a sanctum of unadulterated holiness and perfection; no animal sacrifices were offered there, for this part of the Temple was exclusively devoted to sheltering the “Ark of Testament” that held the tablets upon which G‑d had inscribed the Ten Commandments. If the “garments” (i.e., character and behavior) of the ordinary priest might be affected by the negative smell of the “slaughtered beasts” he handled, this was certainly not the case with the Kohen Gadol, “the greatest of his brethren” in the fraternity of divine service. If every day of the year the scent of evil hovers at the periphery of even the most positive endeavor, Yom Kippur is a day in which “there is no license for the forces of evil to incriminate.” If the ketoret was offered by the Kohen Gadol in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, its ultimate function could not be the sublimation of evil.

The sublimation of evil is something that only the ketoret can achieve, but this is not the sum of its purpose and function. The word ketoret means “bonding”; the essence of the ketoret is the pristine yearning of the soul of man to cleave to G‑d—a yearning that emanates from the innermost sanctum of the soul and is thus free of all constraints and restraints, of all that inhibits and limits us when we relate to something with the more external elements of our being.

Its purity and perfection are what give the ketoret the power to sweeten the foulest of odors, but dealing with evil is not what it is all about. On the contrary, its highest expression is in the utterly evil-free environment of the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.

Bringing the Past in Line

Today, the Holy Temple no longer stands in Jerusalem, and the Kohen Gadol enters the Holy of Holies only in our recitation of the account of the Yom Kippur Temple service in the prayers of the Holy Day and in our vision of a future Yom Kippur in the rebuilt Temple. But the ketoret remains a basic component of our service of G‑d in general, and of our observance of Yom Kippur in particular. We are speaking, of course, of the spiritual ketoret, which exists within the human soul as the power of teshuvah.

Like the incense that burned in the Holy Temple, the manifest function of teshuvah is to deal with negative and undesirable things. On the day-to-day, practical level, teshuvah is “repentance”--a response to wrongdoing, a healing potion for the ills of the soul. But teshuvah is also the dominant quality of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. Obviously, there is more to teshuvah than the rectification of sin.

The word teshuvah means “return”: return to pristine beginnings, return to the intrinsic perfection of the soul. For the essence of the soul of man, which is “a spark of G‑dliness,” is immune to corruption. The inner self of man remains uninvolved in the follies of the ego, untouched by the outer self’s enmeshment in the material and the mundane. Teshuvah is the return to one’s true self, the cutting through of all those outer layers of misguided actions and distorted priorities to awaken one’s true will and desire.

This explains how teshuvah achieves atonement for past sins. Teshuvah enables the sinner to reconnect with his own inherent goodness, with that part of himself which never sinned in the first place. In a sense, he has now acquired a new self, one with an unblemished past; but this “new self” is really his own true self come to light, while his previous, corrupted “self” was but an external distortion of his true being.

Only teshuvah has such power over the past; only teshuvah can “undo” a negative deed. But this is only one of the “uses” of the power of return. Teshuvah is not only for sinners, but also for the holiest person in the holiest time and the holiest place. For even the perfectly righteous individual needs to be liberated from the limitations of the past.

Even the perfectly righteous individual is limited—limited because of knowledge not yet acquired, insights still ungained, feelings yet to be developed, attainments still unachieved; in a word, limited by time itself and the tyranny of its “one way only” law. As we advance through life, we conquer these limits, gaining wisdom and experience and refining and perfecting our character. But is our ability to grow and achieve limited to the future only? Is the past a closed frontier?

When we adopt the inward-seeking approach of teshuvah in everything we do, we need not leave an imperfect past behind at the waysides of our lives. In a teshuvah state, when we learn something new, we uncover the deeper dimension of our self which was always aware of this truth; when we refine a new facet of our personality, we bring to light the timeless perfection of our soul. Never satisfied in merely moving forward, our search for our own true self remakes the past as well.