Alongside the daily tamid sacrifices the kohanim offered each morning and afternoon on the outer (copper) altar, they offered incense on the golden incense altar each morning and afternoon as well. The korban tamid was meant to express the overt bond between God and the Jewish people. Its blood was sprinkled and its limbs burnt on the outer altar, visible to all, thus concretely binding every creature to God. In contrast, the incense expressed the deep inner connection between God and the Jewish people. It was therefore ethereal, expressing the spiritual bond with God, and it was offered on the inner altar, within the Sanctuary.
The incense was made up of eleven ingredients, finely ground so that they would mix thoroughly and produce an even, pleasant fragrance. This alludes to the idea that fully uniting all the energies of the Jewish people in the service of holiness perfects the world. Ten of the ingredients correspond to the ten levels of holiness which were used in creating the world. The eleventh ingredient was galbanum, which smells bad, corresponding to the negative aspects of the world. However, once the galbanum was ground up and mixed with the other ingredients, not only did it not ruin the incense – it actually improved its fragrance. This teaches us that when all the energies of Israel are united in the service of holiness, the inner positives of Israel’s sinners are revealed; they join with the rest and help repair the world. (See Olat Re’iya, vol. 1, pp. 136-138.)
On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol had a unique mitzva to perform: offering a handful of incense in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim on behalf of all Israel. It is only for this mitzva that he may enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. As we read, “The Lord said to Moshe: Tell your brother Aharon that he is not to come at will into the Kodesh, beyond the parokhet, in front of the kaporet that is upon the Ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the kaporet” (Vayikra 16:2). Only once the smoke of the incense filled the Kodesh Ha-kodashim could he sprinkle the blood of the bull and goat on the kaporet, to atone for the defilement of the sacred. (See section 10 below.)
To grasp the meaning of this cloud of incense smoke, one must first realize that this was patterned on how God revealed Himself to Israel – in the opacity of the cloud. Thus, we read, “The cloud covered the mountain. The Glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day, He called to Moshe from the midst of the cloud” (Shemot 24:15-16). The cloud connotes an exalted and sublime divine revelation, beyond human comprehension. Yet through the fog and cloud, one can reach an understanding of the divine, albeit only partially, in accordance with his capabilities. Thus, we read that after the Mishkan was completed, “The cloud covered the Ohel Mo’ed and the Presence of the Lord filled the Mishkan. Moshe could not enter the Ohel Mo’ed, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Mishkan” (Shemot 40:34-35). Similarly, when the First Temple was dedicated, we read, “The kohanim brought the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant to its place underneath the wings of the keruvim, in the Shrine of the House, in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim…. When the kohanim came out of the Kodesh, the cloud had filled the House of the Lord, and the kohanim were unable to stand and serve because of the cloud, for the Presence of the Lord filled the House of the Lord” (1 Melakhim 8:6, 11). First was a sublime, exalted revelation that no human being could endure, and only afterward, from within the cloud and fog, would the divine idea become revealed gradually, according to the abilities of the kohanim.
The incense offered by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim expressed the connection of all Israel with perfect faith, rooted in what lies beyond comprehension. Its first manifestation is hidden and concealed by the opacity of the cloud, but from within the cloud it gradually becomes clearer, in accordance with our ability to grasp it. Understanding this, the Kohen Gadol could enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim to achieve atonement for all Israel.