In the Torah portion Korach, four rebels-named Korach, Dathan, Abiram and On-hatch an ill-fated coup-d'état against the leadership of Aaron and Moses. Scholars identify separate traditions in this text: one, in which Korach repudiates Moses and Aaron's authority, claiming that all the community are holy (Numbers 16:3); and a second, in which Dathan and Abiram rebel against Moses for having taken them out of Egypt, a land they describe as flowing with milk and honey (!) (Numbers 16:13). In the end, two dreadful punishments await the rebels: for Dathan, Abiram, and company, the earth bursts asunder, swallowing them; for Korach and his band, fire and plague bring death and havoc.
We will examine a passage from the third aliyah in which God tells Moses:
[Remove] the fire pans of those who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and let them be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar-for once they have been used for offering to the Eternal, they have become sacred-and let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel. (17:3)
Korach's punishment is the climactic moment of a contest pitting his rebel band against Moses and Aaron. Each was instructed to take his fire pan and lay incense in it for presentation before God (16:17). God speaks to the people through Moses and Aaron, and a massive fire blazes forth from the Eternal, exterminating the two hundred-fifty men offering the incense (16:35). Immediately following this, we find our selection above. Why does God command that the incense pans become plating for the altar?
Isaac Arama, writing in 15th-century Spain, logically suggests thatthe fire pans, "as the objects with which a heinous crime against God has been committed, should have been banished from the sanctuary" (Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar 220). Many commentators have tried to resolve the seeming illogic. Rashi, for instance, proposed that once the ill-fated rebels ignited their incense, "the pans became off limits for personal benefit, for they had used them as instruments of sacred service." But this does not sufficiently explain why consecrated instruments should necessarily become part and parcel of the holy altar, especially in light of the selfish and unholy motives of the offerers.
In the end, Arama answers his own challenge. For him, the plating of the altar with the rebels' copper pans symbolized "victory over falsehood. They were used, admittedly, by sinners, but served to vindicate, in the end, the cause of truth and were therefore sanctified to become a sign to the children of Israel. Whatever counters and abrogates the enemy of holiness is certainly holy-there is none better than he who vanquishes the enemy and there is no vessel holier than that which vindicates the cause of the saint" (Leibowitz, 222).
The charred fire pans testify to God's ultimate authority in the face of arrogant men who challenged it. Jewish institutions the world over are filled with such artifacts, relics that testify to the enduring power of our faith and our peoplehood against those who have sought to erode Judaism or eradicate Jews. Holocaust museums overflow with reams of the worst kind of anti-Jewish propaganda; yet to dispose of these unholy artifacts would be to deprive the world of a powerful educational tool and a symbol of the ultimate "victory over falsehood." We recoil at them in disgust, but we also may see them as banners around which all who stand for tolerance and peace may rally.
The congregation I serve safeguards one of the world's 1,564 Czech memorial Torah scrolls. The Nazis had hoped to enshrine such scrolls as a last, ignominious testament to the vanquished Jewish people. Like Korach and his band, they did not succeed. These scrolls, formally belonging to the Westminster Synogogue in London, have survived decades of abuse and restoration. Our congregation feels blessed to have one such witness to the Nazi horror in our midst, and on Shavuot, one of our 10th grade confirmands, Ellen Kourakos, beautifully expressed how this scroll continues to inspire us. She wrote: "Genocide is taking place right now. I guess it takes seeing something tangible to make us acknowledge the severity of a situation. Luckily, we have that tangible object right here in our synagogue. The importance of having this Torah is immeasurable, but we can measure its impact on us by the success of our efforts in bringing attention to Darfur."
Like the copper plating on the altar of old, that not only communicated a sordid tale but also testified to the enduring authority of God, the relics of our past trials and torments teach us, inspire us and illuminate paths to a better world, a world aware of God's presence.
- Think of a favorite exhibit in a museum. It could be a museum of art or science or history, or something else. What stories do its artifacts tell? What do they say about the people, the time and the place that produced them? What do they teach us here, today? How might the lessons they teach have changed over time?
- What are the effects of rebellion? In what ways does a rebellious member of a group or family reinforce the very things he or she is fighting against? How do you think those who survived were different as a result of the rebellion described in our parashah?
- How could we use the passage we have studied to provide a spiritual underpinning for ecologically conscious actions, like recycling or using renewable resources?
Sh'lach L'cha, Numbers 13:1–15:41
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,107–1,122; Revised Edition, pp. 977–997;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 869–892