When Korach and his 250 followers led a mutiny against the leadership of the people Moshe responded by challenging them to a public showdown. “Moshe said to Korach, you and all your cohorts be before the Lord, you, they and Aaron tomorrow. And let each man take his pan and place upon it incense; each man should offer his pan before the Lord, 250 pans, as well as yours and Aaron’s.” (Numbers 16:16-17)
When all was over and the rebellion had been squashed, G-d sent instructions for Elazar, the son of Aaron, to gather the pans of the 250 challengers and fashion them into a coating for the altar “for they have been brought before the Lord and have become sacred.” (17:3)
The commentators are compelled to offer an explanation why these pans are considered holy. We can’t ignore the fact that the pans were used as instruments of mutiny. The goal of the “rebels” was to usurp the position of Moshe and Aaron, and replace them with elected figures. This was a flagrant dismissal of the system set up by G-d – the designated leaders being Moshe and Aaron. The rebellion asserted that Moshe appointed Aaron in order to keep leadership in the family. They denied that the appointment was G-d’s. In a sense, it was an uprising for democracy, asserting that many people were equally fit for the position of High Priest. Korach’s clarion call was “All the congregation, they are all holy and G-d is in their midst, and why should you [Moshe] assert superiority over the people of G-d.”
When the nation previously erred, constructing the Golden Calf and attributing divinity to it, Moshe melted it down, ground it into dust and scattered it into the river, destroying the object of their sin entirely. This time, the pans, the objects of their sin, are integrated into the furnishing of the Tabernacle, visible to all who approach the altar to bring an offering to the Almighty.
There is a subtle disagreement among the classic commentators concerning the reason the pans had sanctity. Rashi notes that the pans became sanctified since they were made into Klei Sharet, vessels for Divine Service. The Ibn Ezra offers a similar explanation. (The difficulty with this explanation is that the incense offering was far from divine service, it was merely to demonstrate whether G-d will turn to accept those offerings as He accepts the offering of Aaron, the High Priest.)
The Seforno seems to find that explanation insufficient. He writes that the pans had not been fashioned solely for the use of this rebellion. They were designated for general use in the Tabernacle for Divine Service. After the offering of the incense in this instance, the pans were to be used in the Tabernacle for whatever use they were needed, and therefore assumed the sanctity of such vessels. Ramban suggests that this was Rashi’s intent all along.
The Or Hachaim as well finds no holiness related to the act of offering the incense through the use of these pans. He justifies the sanctity of the pans by noting that before the incense was poured upon the pans they were designated for the Tabernacle. Had they not been used, i.e. if the rebels had remorse and not carried out their designs, the pans would still have become property of the Tabernacle. The pans thereby acquired the sanctity upon their manufacture, despite being later used for improper purposes.
Rabbi Moshe Alsheich asks – and now we are getting really technical – the rule is that anything used for mundane purposes cannot be later used for the holy. If so, how could they use the metal of these pans as a coating for the altar? In this instance the pans are used not for Divine worship but for personal promotion – verifying who G-d chooses as the High Priest. Indeed these pans must not be later elevated to a status of holy. The Alsheich answers by borrowing the explanation of the Or Hachaim: Before they were used for the incense, the pans acquired sanctity as property of the Tabernacle. Since the rule is that “One may not restrict the use of that which does not belong to him” the pans could not become disqualified due to misappropriation. They became property of the Tabernacle from the time of manufacture, since the purpose of manufacture was for use in the Tabernacle. It was not within the power of the rebels to disqualify them through mundane use, as they no longer belonged to the rebels at the time the incense was offered. The Alsheich challenges this explanation. The people who designated the use of these pans were the rebels themselves. Each and every one of them only offered the incense under the assumption that he would be The One G-d chooses to accept as the worthy Priest. Since none of them were chosen through the offering, and they all were dead by the time the incense was actually burnt, in retrospect the pans were never actually designated for Divine Service. In that case, we are back to where we started, these were pans used for personal promotion and could no longer be elevated to be used for the holy. To resolve this, the Alsheich quotes the rule that when one commits an action with a condition stipulated, if the condition is impossible to fulfill, the act is valid and the condition is null. In this case, the act was to designate the pan for Divine Service. The condition was that the individual making the designation would be chosen as High Priest. Since one cannot contest Aaron’s status as High Priest – G-d’s choice is above contest – the condition was null and the pans assumed status of vessels of divine service.
All the above commentators have found ways to justify the sanctity of the pans by virtue of their designation as vessels of divine service. Without that element there would be no sanctity ascribed to the pans and they would likely have been destroyed as was the Golden Calf. I want to put out an idea, although it goes against the thrust of these commentators. Nadav and Avihu, the two elder sons of Aaron, perished for offering incense in the Tabernacle without being ordered to do so. G-d was sanctified through their deaths, for now the awe of His presence in the Tabernacle was cemented in the hearts of the people. Despite criticism leveled at Nadav and Avihu for doing something they shouldn’t have, they are lauded as great martyrs, holier than Moshe and Aaron. (See Rashi, Parshat Shemini). The 250 men swept up in the spirit of Korach’s rebellion were men who were doing it for the sake of heaven, as far as they saw it. They were not Korach and they did not join him out of narcissism and jealousy for leadership. They therefore did not suffer the fate of Korach, who was swallowed by the earth with all of his family and possessions. A fire went out from before the Lord and burnt the 250 men who had offered the incense, reminiscent of the fire that took the sons of Aaron not too long before. ‘Take the pans,’ Elazar was commanded, ‘and fashion them into plates to coat the alter “for they have been brought before the Lord and have become sacred.”‘ The men had made a mistake, one that cost them their lives, but they were righteous people, and the instruments of their actions were permanently affixed to the altar, “as a sign for the people.” It was a sign that good intents are not forgotten. The act may be wrong, and it must have consequences, but the people remain righteous and holy, more so in death than they were in life.
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