Rashi states that Moshe did not accept the offerings from the Nesiim until he was instructed to do so by Hashem. The Netziv, z.l., attributes Moshe’s reluctance to accept their korbanos to the fact that they brought ketores, incense, to be offered upon the Mizbei’ach Ha’Chitzon, outer altar. As Rashi later notes (pasuk 14), we find incense offered neither by a yachid, individual, nor upon the outer altar, except for this instance. It would seem that a special dispensation was made during the dedication of the mizbei’ach in regard to korbanos and the usual place where they were to be offered. Why is this ? One would think that the first time korbanos were offered it would set the standard for all ensuing korbanos, mandating strict compliance with halacha.
In expounding on the korbanos of the Nesiim, Horav Nissan Alpert, z.l., develops a profound understanding and appreciation of the uniqueness of the moment and its resounding lesson for the future. The body is composed of various limbs and organs, each essential in their own way, but not all of them life-sustaining in nature. If certain ones are removed from his body, the person will be blemished, his quality of life will be encumbered, but he will nevertheless continue to live. There are, however, organs that constitute the life-force of a human being. If the heart, brain or blood are not in working order, or are missing, the individual will die.
The same holds true for the great body of Klal Yisrael. Each individual Jew represents a limb or organ which contributes to the health and welfare of the Jewish people. Each Jew has an obligation and mission to fulfill. Some succeed in devoting their lives to their own personal self-development. They meticulously perform mitzvos, scrupulously seeing to it that they follow Torah dictate exclusively. Their service to the body of Klal Yisrael focuses on themselves. Obviously, these individuals are not the “klal people” in the sense that they sustain an entire people. Because their focus of observance is restricted to their individual needs, they clearly do not constitute the heart and lifeblood of Klal Yisrael.
There are also community oriented “klal menchen” whose entire perspective on life is, “What can I do to sustain Klal Yisrael ?” They selflessly put their own needs aside and devote every fiber of their entire being to the continued physical and spiritual sustenance of our people. These individuals are viewed as the “heart” of our people, uniting Klal Yisrael in their every endeavor.
The two mizbachos symbolize these two disparate attitudes toward serving Hashem. The individual who is self-oriented, whose potential to perform on behalf of the community has not yet been realized, is represented by the outer altar. The inner altar, upon which the ketores was offered, alludes to the “tzibbur mench,” whose desire to live for the community is reflected in his every act.
The ketores was offered upon the inner altar because it represented a melding of different spices into one entity, symbolizing the harmony between the various ingredients. Even the chelbanah, which emitted a foul odor, was included in the ketores. It was a korban tzibbur which reflected all Jews, their individual attitudes, personalities, and backgrounds.
Therefore, the ketores, the quintessential korban tzibbur, was to be brought upon the inner altar, which signifies the ultimate meaning of achdus, unity. The service on the inner altar reflected total commitment to Klal Yisrael without separating one Jew from another. As Horav Alpert notes, this is the meaning behind Dovid Ha’Melech’s entreaty to Hashem h,kp, iuf, lhbpk ,rye (Tehillim 141:2). He begged Hashem that his tefillos, prayers, should be like ketores before Him. In this way, all the needs of Klal Yisrael would be before him, and his whole focus should be only on their needs and not his own individual ones.
Tefillah is referred to as avodas ha’lev, service of the heart. Dovid Ha’Melech appealed to Hashem to view his tefillos as a true service of the heart. As the heart does not exist merely for itself, but sustains the entire body, so shall his prayers be “heartlike” in nature. Thus, all the needs of the Jewish people were the center of his concentration.
We now understand the intention of the Nesiim who were so spiritually elevated that they desired to offer ketores on the outer altar. They sensed that they were not offering a korban yachid as an individual, but rather a korban representing the entire Klal Yisrael as one unit. They had ascended to the apex of spiritual advancement so that they transcended themselves and became unified with the entire Jewish people. To eternalize this unique moment, they sought to obliterate the distinction between the outer and inner altar, between the yachid and the tzibbur. All of Klal Yisrael was bound up as one unit. Moshe asked Hashem to determine whether the Nesiim had truly achieved this lofty plateau in which all demarcation dividing them from the rest of Klal Yisrael had become nonexistent. Hashem responded in the affirmative. This one time, He permitted all distinction between yachid and tzibbur to be relaxed.