Korach and his conspirators try to wrest the leadership from Moshe and Aaron. As part of Moshe’s response, he tells two hundred and fifty of Korach’s men to try offering incense and “we’ll see what happens”. Incense had already been shown to be a controlled substance that required well-defined safety procedures. Unsurprisingly, G-d kills Korach’s men with a Divine fire. All that remains are smouldering bodies holding fire pans of smoking coals and incense. G-d tells Aaron’s son, Elazar, to clean up the mess [Bemidbar 17:2-5]:
17:2 “Remove the fire pans from among the charred remains… for they have become sacred”
17:3 “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 they have been used for offering to G-d and have become sacred – and let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel.
17:4 Elazar the priest took the copper fire pans which had been used for offering by those who died in the fire; and they were hammered into plating for the altar as G-d had ordered him through Moshe.
17:5 It was to be a reminder to the Israelites, so that no outsider – one not of Aaron’s offspring – should offer incense before G-d and suffer the fate of Korach and his band.
The order of the verses is counterintuitive. One would have thought that verses 17:4 and 17:5 would be reversed. That is to say, first G-d tells Elazar to [17:3] hammer the firepans into sheets to serve as a warning, [17:5] a reminder to the Israelites so that no one should suffer the same fate as Korach, and only afterwards should we be told that [17:4] Elazar did as he was told and hammered those firepans onto the altar.
This question is asked by Rabbi Hezkiah ben Manoach, known as the “Hizkuni”, who lived in France in the thirteenth century. The Hizkuni suggests that verse [17:4] is inserted between [17:3] and [17:5] to stress that G-d was actually speaking to two different people: He first commanded Elazar to tidy things up and to hammer the firepans into the altar and afterwards He told Aaron, Elazar’s father, that “It was to be a reminder to the Israelites”. The Hizkuni does not explain the reason G-d needed to speak to both Aaron and to Elazar.
In this lesson, we will propose an alternate answer to the Hizkuni’s question. We will present our solution in two layer. The first layer involves realizing that while the Torah testifies that Elazar acted “as G-d had ordered him through Moshe”, he didn’t act exactly as G-d had ordered him through Moshe. Notice that G-d told Elazar to “let [the firepans] be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar”. Elazar was meant to use a hammer to beat the firepans into sheets of copper, which would be roll bonded to the altar. Elazar did something different: he “hammered [the firepans] into plating for the altar”. The Torah makes no mention of the word “sheets (riku’ei pachim)”. Elazar beat the firepans into the altar as-is. Even after they had become part of the altar, the firepans remained clearly visible. Had Elazar acted exactly as he was commanded, an observer on the altar would have seen only copper sheets and the connection to the firepans would have been blurred. G-d requested an “ot” – a warning. Elazar made a “zikaron” – a reminder. Every time a person saw the firepans embedded in the floor of the altar, he was reminded of that fateful day.
Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi, known as “Manitou”, who lived in Algeria, France, and Israel during the previous century, discusses the Jewish concept of memory. Manitou quotes his teacher, Rabbi Yaakov Gordin, who explains that in Judaism, “remembering” does not mean merely “not forgetting” an event that occurred in the past. Rather, “remembering” means actively and repeatedly revisiting the event and its significance. “Remembering” means constantly experiencing and re-experiencing the event. Symbols and icons are insufficient. For instance, when G-d commands us to remember the Egyptian exodus, we do not eat bread at the Pesach seder while a symbolic plate of matzo is placed at the centre of the table as a reminder. We eat the matzo and by doing so, we re-enact the exodus. “In each generation a person must see himself as if he himself were redeemed from Egypt”. The past and the present become merged and our memories take on a tangible reality. This is what Elazar was thinking when he chose to leave the firepans looking like firepans.
Now we can understand why verse [17:4] is inserted between verses [17:3] and [17:5]: In [17:2], G-d commands Elazar to perform an action for a reason described in [17:3]. In [17:4] Elazar performs a slightly different action for a reason described in [17:5].
My wife, Tova, adds a second layer to this explanation Why did the two hundred and fifty firepans need to be attached specifically to the altar? Why couldn’t Elazar have hung them up on the wall in some “Hall of Shame”, where bystanders could look at them and frown with disapproval? The reason the firepans had to be disposed of specifically in this way is because when they were used to offer incense, they had become irreversibly consecrated, even though the offering was a sin of fatal proportions. Once an object has become consecrated, it cannot be discarded or treated with disrespect. It must be disposed of respectfully. And so Elazar was commanded to hammer the holy firepans onto the holy altar. When G-d tells Elazar “for they have been used for offering to G-d and have become sacred – and let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel”, the warning is that anything that is used an offering to G-d, for whatever the reason, will immediately become holy.
What is “holiness”? What does it mean for an object to be “consecrated”? When Korach first begins his rebellion, he tells Moshe and Aaron [Bemidbar 16:3] “For all the community are all holy and G-d is in their midst”. What does Korach mean by “all holy”? The commentators offer a wide array of explanations: Rashi, who lived in France in the eleventh century, explains that “holy” means that all of the Jewish People had heard G-d give the Torah at Sinai. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy in the sixteenth century, explains that Korach meant that the Jewish People were holy “from the soles of their feet to the top of their heads”. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, known as the Netziv, who was the headmaster of the Volozhn Yeshiva in the nineteenth century, teaches that Korach meant that the Jewish People were all worthy of the Divine Presence resting upon them. The diversity of the explanations stems from the fact that the concept of “holiness” is fuzzy. I suggest that this was precisely Korach’s motive – to entice the nation to support his rebellion by using lofty words such as “holy” and “G-dliness” and to let them try to figure out what he meant. But Judaism is not a religion of fuzzy concepts. Judaism is not a theology or a philosophy. It is a way of living one’s life. Judaism is not interested in the driver experience. Judaism is interested in where the rubber meets the road. When the Torah commands us [Vayikra 19:2] “Be holy!”, it immediately follows this commandment with more than fifty concrete ways in which to implement this commandment [Vayikra 19:3-37]: Honour your parents, keep the Shabbat, do not commit idolatry, do not slander… If you want to “be holy”, keep the Torah and observe its commandments. Holiness, whatever that may be, will be sure to follow.
When Elazar left the firepans looking like firepans, he modified not only the medium, but also the content of G-d’s intended message. When a person stared at the firepan lodged in the floor of the altar, he did not only receive a stern warning to “be holy”, he also received a stark reminder that the division, controversy, and defiance that Korach embodied would lead a person to his death. Whatever Korach embodied, it was most certainly not holiness. This was a message that anyone could understand and that everyone would remember.
G-d demands holiness. We bring holiness down to our level by doing as G-d commands and by doing so we become [Shemot 19:6] “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”.
Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.
 While it is fairly straightforward to postulate a reason, we leave it as an exercise for the reader.