“Aaron took [the fire-pan] as Moses had told him... He put the incense in it, and it atoned for the people. He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was checked.” (Num. 17:12-13)
From where did Moses learn the secret power of incense to arrest plagues?
According to the Midrash (Shabbat 89a), when Moses went up to accept the Torah, the angels bestowed him with various presents. “You ascended on high, taking a captive [the Torah], receiving gifts among men” (Psalms 68:19). Even the Angel of Death presented Moses with a gift: the secret of the incense.
What is special about incense that it has the power to stay death? And why not take advantage of this capability to permanently rescind death?
All forces in the world, even the forces of death and destruction, contribute to the development and perfection of the universe. When all the realms and their forces, both spiritual and physical, draw together, each one provides a unique function. From this standpoint, the force of death also serves as a force of life.
The unique character of the incense reflects this message of harmony and inter-connectivity. The Hebrew word for incense, ketoret, is related to the word kesher, meaning a ‘bind’ or ‘knot.’ The incense unites together the core essence of all forces — life, matter, and spirit — according to the extraordinary recipe that God prescribed in the Torah.
The ability to overcome destructive forces, at a time when they rule freely and have not yet been converted into constructive and preserving forces, was an exceptional phenomenon. This hidden knowledge was granted only to Moses. This gift from the Angel of Death demonstrated the surrender of the forces of death to the pure splendor illuminating that faithful messenger, as he revealed the light of the Torah of life.
What is the root of the incense’s secret power? The ketoret also encompasses the forces of destruction, so that they may contribute to building and perfecting the universe. Thus, we find that the ketoret bound together many fragrances, including galbanum (chelbenah), which was an essential ingredient, despite its pungent, unpleasant odor. In this way, these forces fulfill their ultimate purpose, to build and complete. True realization of this transformation, however, will only occur in the distant future, as the path for sweetening the bitterness of the universe is hidden deeply within the divine secrets of Creation.
Only as a temporary measure for the need of that hour, the harmonious quality of the incense was able to stay the power of death. The secret given to Moses demonstrated the comprehensiveness of the Torah, and the unique splendor of those who study Torah — the source of peace, life, and rectification for all worlds and their myriad inhabitants.
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 256-257. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, p. 213)