The impulse to deviate
Why are fire-pans containing incense chosen for the purpose of putting to the test Korah's revolutionary proposal of democratization?
When Korah and his company challenge Moses and Aaron's authority, Moses proposes that his own leadership be put to the test: "And he spoke unto Korah and unto all his company, saying: 'In the morning the Lord will show who are His, and who is holy, and will cause him to come near unto Him; even him whom He may choose will He cause to come near unto Him. This do: take you censers, Korah, and all his company; and put fire therein, and put incense upon them before the Lord to-morrow; and it shall be that the man whom the Lord doth choose, he shall be holy; ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi'" (Numbers 16:5-7 ).
A metal vessel with a handle, the censer or fire-pan is shaped like a modern frying-pan and is used for the offering of incense in the Temple. The incense is placed in the censer and then coals are heaped on top of it. The censer is the priests' artificial hand, which enables them to hold the fire needed for the sacrifice.
Moses proposes an experiment to Korah and his company: He invites them to come the next morning, with censers ready, for the presentation of a sacrifice. They will then see which of the censers will be acceptable to God in the sanctuary and which will be rejected.
Why are fire-pans containing incense chosen for the purpose of putting to the test Korah's revolutionary proposal of democratization? Rashi explains: "... incense is the most favored of all the sacrifices offered in the Temple. It contains a poison that caused Nadab and Abihu's death by fire." Korah's story is built on the foundations of a previous one - the story of the death of Nadab and Abihu, which is told in the Book of Leviticus and was included in the Torah portion Shemini (Lev. 9:1-11:47 ) read about two and a half months ago in the synagogue: "And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them" (Leviticus 10:1 ).
When Nadab and Abihu present "strange fire" before God, they carry it in their own personal censers. The censer is intended to receive the upper fire that God brings down in order to consume the sacrificial offerings presented to him. Instead, in the case of Nadab and Abihu, the censer serves as a platform for receiving their own human fire. The result: "And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord" (Lev. 10:2 ). According to our sages, the roots from which the actions of Aaron's sons spring are positive, and they therefore look for other flaws that can explain why Nadab and Abihu's offering was rejected by God. There is an imbalance in the sacrifice they present: a slight undermining of the equilibrium required for making an offering that will be acceptable to God. The offering of a sacrifice is an action that brings heaven and earth together. The sacrifice presented to God must be an offering whose origin is human, and the act of presenting the sacrifice demands a delicate balance. Only those persons whose feet are firmly planted on the ground are capable of raising their gift up to heaven.
According to at least some interpretations, the sin committed by Aaron's sons was no more than a lack of balance. In line with one interpretive approach, Aaron's sons never got married, and for that reason are thus unable to plant their feet firmly on the ground of reality. Their souls long to unite with God and therefore abandon their respective human bodies. In his explanation of why the censer is selected as the instrument to test the argument voiced by Korah and his company, Rashi stretches an axis from Parashat Shemini to this week's Torah portion, Korah. The fire-pan is a metonym for the persons presenting sacrifices because it enables them to hold the upper fire in their earthly hand. Although this artificial hand serves as a medium that, at the same time, separates the presenters of sacrifices from the incense, it also enables them to hold it.
The censer symbolizes the very heart of the act of offering a sacrifice: the connection between heaven and earth. In presenting their offering, those doing the offering meet the same fate as Nadab and Abihu: "And fire came forth from the Lord, and devoured the two hundred and fifty men that offered the incense" Num. 16:35 ). Korah and his company die but what should be done with their fire-pans?
"And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: 'Speak unto Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, that he take up the fire-pans out of the burning, and scatter thou the fire yonder; for they are become holy'" (Num. 17:1-2 ). The incense they presented is thrown away, but the censers themselves have become holy. Rashi explains why this has happened: "Because they were turned into vessels for the service of God."
Since the censers have become sanctified for the offering of a sacrifice to the altar, they cannot be thrown away together with the incense. Korah and his company challenge not only Moses' leadership but all forms of leadership. There is no need for any medium between the people and God: "all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them" (Num. 16:3 ). Everyone can present a sacrifice.
God's answer to the challenge appears unequivocal: The earth swallows up the sanctuary of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, and the 250 persons presenting incense are consumed by the fire sent down by God.
Although the answer is unequivocal, the marginal verse describing what is done with the censers changes the picture completely. If the censers were sanctified, that must mean that the sacrifice presented by the 250 members of Korah's company was not really rejected; in other words, the act of sanctification was carried out, but was interrupted. In point of fact, Korah and his company were right, and "all the congregation are holy, every one of them." The fire-pans cannot be thrown away and thus they are beaten into plates that then cover the altar: "even the fire-pans of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and let them be made beaten plates for a covering of the altar - for they are become holy, because they were offered before the Lord - that they may be a sign unto the children of Israel" (Num. 17:3 ).
Although the earth swallows up Korah and his company and the 250 presenters of incense are consumed by fire, their censers remain and become a cover for the altar. Why? To serve as a reminder: "to be a memorial unto the children of Israel, to the end that no common man, that is not of the seed of Aaron, draw near to burn incense before the Lord; that he fare not as Korah, and as his company; as the Lord spoke unto him by the hand of Moses" (Num. 17:5 ). While the altar's cover is meant to remind the nation of Korah's rebellion so that it "fare not as Korah, and as his company," the beaten fire-pans covering the altar also remind the Israelites of the precise opposite: Korah and his company were right. The potential of personal communication with God is available for every Israelite and every Israelite can present incense before God in the sanctuary.
The altar is that component in the sanctuary where the more ritualistic aspects of service in the Temple are concentrated. This same altar, on which are presented sacrifices that are described in the minutest of details, is now covered with the beaten fire-pans of a revolutionary. Whereas the precise rituals shape the sacrifices as a meeting of heaven and earth, the fact that it is now covered with the beaten fire-pans of Korah and his company serves to remind the nation of the anarchic origin of the emotional movement that leads to the act of presenting a sacrifice. It serves as a reminder of the human impulse to deviate from the existing order of things in order to reach another reality, one where "all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them." Perhaps that is why the following statement appears in our midrashic literature: "The Talmudic scholars said: 'Korah was a great wise man'" (Numbers Rabbah 18:3 ).