At the conclusion of the ‘incense-pan test’ during which a fire descended from heaven consuming the 250 rebels and substantiating Aharon’s Divinely chosen role, God commands Moshe to tell Elaazar, Aharon’s son, to collect the ‘discarded’ copper pans, bang them into plate and add them to ‘the mizbeach’ as a sign for Bnei Yisrael that all non-Kohanim are prohibited from bringing incense.
The question is: which mizbeach was Elaazar to revamp? If God was referring to the mizbeach hazahav, it would be very difficult to accept that His very particular design concerning this completely gold and wood altar should now be amended to include copper! Additionally, if the message of these beaten pans was directed to Bnei Yisrael, how would this mizbeach, which most of the nation almost never came in contact with (it was placed in the Kodesh, beyond the regular view of the people), be a satisfactory lesson-conveying signpost? However, if God was referring to the mizbeach ha’nechoshet, while the metal would match and it would certainly stand directly in the sight of the intended ‘students’, the lesson it was to convey about not bringing incense would be lost if taught through the very mizbeach upon which only animals were brought. The mizbeach hazahav was the incense altar!
The entire goal of the incense-pan test was to Divinely reject the 250 Leviim “agents’” claims for equality; and with the death of the entire rebellious group by heavenly fire, the test amply showed that Aharon was chosen by God and this appointment could not be challenged. However, God then tells Moshe to command Elaazar, Aharon’s son, to collect the pans, expressing another integral facet to Aharon’s unimpeachable position: even his children are Divinely-directed players in God’s service. This added message is understood as follows: not only were the specific 250 Leviim “agents” incorrect in their assumption that they were equal to Aharon, but Elaazar’s collection of the pans demonstrates that even the entire Levi tribe (the ‘extension’ of the 250 Leviim) now sojourning in the desert will never achieve the elevated status of Aharon’s family (the ‘extension’ of Aharon, the individual)!
And now back to our original question. To which mizbeach were Elaazar’s renovations directed? It was, in fact, the mizbeach ha’nechoshet so that the lesson could be amply learned and relearned for generations to come by the Yisraelim who brought their korbanot; however, the specific message the added copper taught concerned the incense and its unique service in the mishkan/mikdash as the special privilege of only the Kohanim! By ‘joining’ the Kohanim-incense with the Yisrael–mizbeach, God in essence totally removed the Leviim from the picture, adding yet another pointed lesson to His lecture: not only were the specific 250 Leviim thoughts of equality mistaken, and not only was the present tribe of Levi never to reach Aharon’s family’s level, but even the future generations of Leviim will be absent from the day-to-day services performed in the Temple (i.e. korbanot, incense, cleaning and lighting the menorah, and placing and replacing the bread) – these were not included in the privileged charge God bestowed upon them and never will be!
And finally, in what context did this rebellion occur? After the Leviim were given special, elevated status over the entire nation as guardians of the mishkan, suddenly these 250 wanted even more for themselves, looking to redefine the extent of their responsibility in this framework to an even greater, more active role! This is the very same mistaken approach addressed by the ‘wood collector’ episode and the mitzvah of tzitzit found in last week’s parsha – the erroneous desire to redefine God’s commands by following the individual’s perspective of what he believes is ultimately correct. No one, not even the privileged Leviim, is beyond the dangerous grasp of this misguided yearning for the personally defined ‘Right’.