There’s a small scar on my left index finger where the digit meets the hand. There since early childhood, it serves as a reminder of the time I decided to slice a frozen bagel by myself with a sharp knife. A little more force, a slip here or there, and I would have been one finger short. I don’t remember a lot about the incident, but I do think about it every time I slice a bagel.
This is, I admit, a ridiculous way to introduce a meaningful lesson from this week’s Torah portion. In the parshah, Korach assembles his band of rabble rousers against Moses and Aaron with a challenge to their leadership: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, each and every one. And the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?!”
We see the showdown that unfolds over the next chapter, dueling firepans laden with incense. Ultimately, Korach and his company are swallowed up by the earth, and 250 firepans remain from the rebels who were consumed by God’s fire. It is a terrifying scene, to be sure. But what happens next is perplexing.
On order from God, Moses commands Aaron’s son Eleazar to clean up the scene of the confrontation — specifically to remove “the firepans 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 an offering to the Lord, they have become sacred, and let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel.”
What? The firepans used by this gang of rebels are used as copper plating for the altar, one of the most sacred places for our people? It seems completely counterintuitive. There has to be a reason why these objects get not only a “new lease,” but even a serious promotion in holiness — and it can’t simply be an environmental impulse to “reuse.”
Some look at this incident and assert that the holiness of the firepans comes from the fact that they were utilized in a sacred act and are therefore sanctified not as a result of their original sinful owners, but through contact with God.
Others side with Korach and his gang having some holy intentions, however misguided, and genuinely wanting to serve God. Their aim was pure, and this is the holiness that clings to the firepans.
A paraphrase of Rav Kook in Etz Hayim indicates that “the holiness of the firepans symbolizes the necessary role played by skeptics and agnostics in keeping religion honest and healthy.”
These seem to me reasonable interpretations, but I would push the symbolism further. What is the purpose of plating the altar with the firepans? It is so that anyone who uses it will be reminded — they will serve as an ot, a symbol, warning or sign.
Those who stand in front of the altar will remember, and this visual cue will bring the necessary meaning. Maybe it’s the awareness of the genuine spiritual strivings of the “whole community, each and every one” that leaders must keep in mind. Maybe it’s the validity of challenge and dissent within the tradition. Maybe it’s a memory of the limits of authority that any one person can hold.
The visual sign, the lesson of the scar, bears exactly the meaning that each individual needs to understand.
Rabbi Craig Axler is the spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton.