Toward the end of Parashat Chayei-Sara (25:1), the Torah tells of Avraham’s marriage to a woman named Ketura. Rashi, citing Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer (30), comments that Ketura was actually Hagar, but she is referred to as “Ketura” because “her actions were pleasing like the ketoret.” Chazal here compare Hagar’s “pleasing” conduct to the pleasant fragrance of the ketoret – the incense offered in the Beit Ha-mikdash.
This comparison between good deeds and the ketoret perhaps comes into sharper focus in light of the Gemara’s comment in Masekhet Yoma (44a) that the ketoret atoned for the particular sin of lashon ha-ra – sharing negative information about others. The basis for this association, the Gemara explains, is that both the ketoret and lashon ha-ra occur “ba-chashai” – “in secret.” As opposed to most other Temple rituals, which took place outdoors in the Temple courtyard, the incense was offered inside the building, in “secret,” out of public view. It is therefore associated with lashon ha-ra, which is generally spread in private conversations.
Ironically, the Gemara earlier in Masekhet Yoma (39b) describes in astonishing terms the strength of the ketoret’s fragrance. It goes so far as to say that women in Jerusalem and even in distant Jericho did not need perfume, because their skin absorbed the scent of the incense, and the goats in Jericho “sneezed” because of the smell. Although the ketoret was offered “in secret,” its effects were anything but “secretive.” They spread far wide and were tangibly sensed well beyond the Beit Ha-mikdash. This quality of the ketoret sharpens the association drawn by Chazal between the ketoret and lashon ha-ra. Like the incense, lashon ha-ra is something which is done privately and secretively, but whose effects spread powerfully far and wide. “Juicy” news spread in the privacy of one’s home can reach ears throughout the world, and can yield devastating consequences for the person about whom it is spoken. Hence, lashon ha-ra is associated with the ketoret, which is offered privately but has a very public impact.
The association between the “pleasing deeds” of Ketura and Ketoret underscores the fact that this is true of positive actions, as well. Simple mitzva acts performed quietly, privately and without fanfare have a profound and far-reaching effect. We are not told much of Hagar’s piety, but Chazal assert that her fine conduct was like the ketoret – occurring in private, but yielding a significant impact. We should not seek recognition or fame for our good deeds, or make our involvement in mitzvot contingent upon publicity. Instead, we should trust that our mitzvot have a widespread impact just like the ketoret, even if we are unable to “smell” their beautiful “fragrance.”