The Torah in Parashat Ki-Tisa (30:34-38) tells of the ketoret, the special incense which was prepared with eleven different species of spices. The incense was placed on hot coals and offered on the altar inside the Mishkan each morning and afternoon (as we read in the final verses of Parashat Tetzaveh – 30:7-8).
The Gemara in Masekhet Yoma (44a) comments that the ketoret was offered to atone for the particular sin of lashon ha-ra – gossip and negative speech about others. The basis for this connection, the Gemara explains, is that the ketoret was offered “in secret” (“be-chashai”), inside the Mishkan, just as gossip is generally shared privately, in secret. Whereas all other offerings were brought on the altar which stood outside, in the courtyard, the incense was offered indoors, and is thus associated with lashon ha-ra, a violation which is commonly committed in private.
Rav Yoel Herzog, in Imrei Yoel (Parashat Behaalotekha, derush 29), develops the connection between the ketoret and lashon ha-ra further. What makes lashon ha-ra so destructive, he explains, is its tendency to spread far and wide, often with great speed. Negative information privately shared with one person can then be quickly disseminated, thereby ruining the subject’s reputation. Rav Herzog proposes that this might be the reason why Chazal pointed to tzara’at – leprosy – as the punishment for the sin of lashon ha-ra. Tzara’at is highly contagious, and thus represents the ease with which negative information about a person tends to spread. By the same token, Rav Herzog writes, the Torah prescribes the offering of ketoret as the means of atoning for lashon ha-ra. The fragrant scent of the incense wafted through the air and spread over vast distances. (In fact, the Mishna (Tamid 3:8) tells that the fragrance of the ketoret could be smelled even from the city of Jericho.) The way to reverse the corrosive effects of lashon ha-ra, which pollutes the air, creating an environment of negativity and enmity, is through the ketoret – creating a “fragrant” environment through positive, uplifting and encouraging words. The offering of the ketoret represents the effort we must make to produce a pleasing, joyful atmosphere in our homes, our institutions, our communities, and our world, by speaking kindly and positively. We counter the “stench” of lashon ha-ra through the beautiful scent of the ketoret, by disseminating joy and cheerfulness instead of cynicism and scorn. And just as the harmful effects of lashon ha-ra begin from words spoken privately, so are we able to produce a “fragrance” with the “ketoret” that we “offer” in our private lives, within our homes, families and inner circles, through positive, encouraging, and uplifting words which create a beautiful “scent” that will then spread far and wide, profoundly impacting our environment and the world generally.