Parshat Korach – Rav Yonatan Horovitz
There is a famous story of the Rabbi who traveled the world with one drasha, about Parshat Korach. Somehow, at the beginning of each lecture he would do, see or mention something which could connect to Korach and then go on to deliver his tried and tested speech. Perhaps the reason why Korach was the parsha chosen as the subject of this story is because there are so many strange and varied episodes in the narrative that it must have been relatively easy for the said Rabbi to find some link to the Korach saga. Rebellion, jealousy, burning incense, miraculous earthquakes, flowering almond trees and many more provide us with a truly colorful parsha into which we delve this week.
We will focus on one section, found at the beginning of Chapter 17:
“Hashem spoke to Moshe saying. Order Elazar, son of Aharon the priest to remove the pans – for they have become sacred – from among the charred remains; and scatter the coals abroad. 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 Hashem, they have become sacred – and let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel……It was to be a reminder to the Israelites, so that no outsider – one not of Aharon’s offspring – should presume to offer incense before Hashem and suffer the fate of Korach and his band.” (Bamibar 17:1-5)
This command to Moshe, to be implemented by Elazar, was given following the episode during which the 250 men who had challenged Moshe earlier in the parsha had brought incense. They were killed by a fire which emanated from God Himself. (It should be pointed out that though this “incense test” is discussed at the beginning of the entire saga, the Torah then spends time elaborating on the complaints of Datan and Aviram. It is only after the earth has swallowed up these rebels that we return to the fate of those who brought the incense. There is in fact a dispute in the Gemara and subsequently amongst the mefarshim as to by which of the two responses, fire and earth swallowing Korach perished, with one opinion stating that he suffered both punishments!)
Why did Hashem command for the pans of these sinners to be preserved? Although the answer to this question would seem to be stated clearly in the Torah, in the final passuk quoted above, we still question the notion described here.
In describing the reason for collecting these pans, the Torah uses the phrase “ki kodeshu”. (We adopt the accepted translation, “for they have become sacred”, though this is not necessarily an accurate representation of what kadosh really means. Other suggestions include holy, separated or dedicated.) What is the meaning of this phrase? In what way were these pans, brought by people who were questioning Hashem’s selection of Aharon and his sons as the sole people worthy of bringing ketoret, kadosh?
Rashi explains that these pans had de facto become vessels for use in the Mikdash, klei sharet, and therefore all mundane benefit from them is prohibited. Ramban questions this logic, asking why there should be any form of prohibition seeing as the incense brought on these pans was “ketoret zara” a strange or alien form of incense. Ramban first posits that the reason for their kedusha was because the 250 men brought the incense based on the suggestion of Moshe, they in fact did so with the hope, albeit misguided, that God would in fact answer them and accept their offering. Ramban then states that he understands the phrase “ki kadeshu” to mean that Hashem has now dedicated them, only after the demise of those whos brought the ketoret, for the purpose of the message found in the Torah. As stated it is so that they should be a reminder and warning to future generations about the prohibition of a non Kohen bringing the ketoret.
Although we can understand Ramban’s objection to the explanation cited by Rashi, we still wonder, based on Ramban, why Hashem would choose to sanctify these particular pans. Would it not have been simpler and possibly more appropriate to erect a sign saying “NO NON KOHANIM ALLOWED – remember what happened to Korach and his men”? OK, so maybe not in that exact language, but this would still appear better than using the same pans that were brought by this group of sinners, who were punished directly by Hashem.
Rav Don Yitzchak Abrabanel explains this command in a fashion which allows us to both understand the point of using the pans and at the same time not negate the comments of Rashi and Ramban. Abarbanel explains that actions are not necessarily defined as good or bad based on their content alone but rather on the intention with which they are performed. The act of bringing ketoret per se is not a bad thing; it depends who brings it, when and for what purpose. Therefore Hashem specifically commanded for these pans to be used because it is these same pans that could theoretically be used for the correct aim. Through this, Hashem demonstrates additionally that the vessels themselves are only the means to get closer to God. They themselves are of no value and that is why even pans used originally in sin can now be sanctified and used on the Mizbeach if the intention is correct. (There are halachic limitations to this statement but we shall not deal with these at this juncture.) We see therefore that whether we understand the phrase “ki kadeshu” like Rashi as something which happened earlier because these pans were used to offer ketoret, or whether we adopt the approach of Ramban that Hashem decided to do this at a later stage, the resulting message is the same. Our avodat hashem depends on how we use the vessels we are given and if we are performing God’s will or not.
Abarbanel continues by explaining that this use of the pans for a positive lesson created the need for a further clarification of the status of the Levi’im and Aharon. Am Yisrael thought that because these pans were being used for the mizbayach, those who brought the ketoret were therefore being retrospectively awarded the status of tzaddikim. For this reason the people cry out to Moshe and Aharon, “atem hamitem et am Hashem, you have killed the people of God” (17:6). This explains the necessity for the subsequent test of the matot (staffs) at which point it becomes clear to all of Am Yisrael that Aharon and the Levi’im were chosen by God. The people then understand why the 250 men who offered the incense were sentenced to death and could now appreciate the message portrayed by the use of those very same pans on the Mizbeach.
We cannot conclude without pointing to the obvious parallel between our parsha and the story of Nadav and Avihu. They too brought ketoret zara and they too were killed by a fire which emanated from Hashem. Why was their punishment so severe; surely their intention was noble? There are many answers to this question but we suggest that the resolution lies in the place at which they erred and the description by the Torah of their ketoret. Nadav and Avihu brought ketoret in the kodesh kadashim “asher lo yziva otam, of which they had not been commanded” (Vayikra 10:1) Particularly in the Mishkan, the idea of bringing an offering of which they had not been commanded was antithetical to what was being conveyed on that day. On the occasion of the dedication of the Mishkan, the message had to ring out loud and clear – avodat Hashem stems from obeying Hashem’s words and nothing else. Intentions may be good but if we do not stick to the letter of the law, to God’s words, these good intentions are irrelevant. This notion forms the foundation for all the avoda in the mishkan.
Let us return to our parsha. The suggestion above would seem to lead us to the opposite conclusion to that of the Abarbanel. Whereas he speaks of the intention defining the action, the parallel to Nadav and Avihu would suggest otherwise. The reconciliation of these two ideas lies in a clearer of understanding of our adherence to Hashem’s laws. First and foremost we must follow the letter of the law, that written in the Torah and subsequently the halacha as we know it today. Within that framework, there is room for individual expression, but as the Abarbanel points out, we must be careful not to allow such subjective tones to affect our adherence to halacha itself. The danger that exists, the lesson to be learned from Korach and his men, is that once we allow our personal feelings and preferences to govern our avodat Hashem, we neglect the foundation, that of subservience and obedience to the Almighty.
On a more contemporary level, this could be understood in the realm of tefillah. There are clear halachic guidelines for when, how and in what from one should pray. A person may say to themselves, that davenning in a minyan is not conducive to their kavvana. One may claim that they prefer not to davven in a shul, or not at the times designated in halacha. All of this may be true but this is not avodat Hashem. We have a fixed form for tefillah and clear parameters about how to fulfill this mitzvah. On the other hand, Rabbi Shimon warns us in Pirkei Avot “al ta’as tefillatecha keva, do not make your prayer fixed” (Avot 2:18). This means that tefilla should not become something mundane or ordinary. It should not be the same every day. Within the framework of halacha we are urged to find room for expression and an outlet for personal connection with God, but never must we allow this subjectivity to lead us to transgress the word of Hashem. If we forget how this is done, we just need to look at the pans on the side of the Mizbeach!