“The Lesson of the Fire-pans”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Korach, Korach, Datan, Aviram and the 250 leaders of Israel rebel against Moses and Aaron. In response, Moses proposes a test to prove that he is indeed speaking in the name of G-d and to confirm the falsehood of the rebels’ contentions.

Numbers 16:6 reads: “Zoat ah’soo. K’choo la’chem mach’toat Korach v’chol ah’dah’to,” This is what you should do: Take for yourselves fire-pans, Korach and his entire assembly. Place incense on the fire-pans and ignite the incense with fire before G-d. Tomorrow, says Moses (Numbers 16:7): “V’ha’yah ha’eesh ah’sher yiv’char Hashem, hoo ha’ka’dosh,” the person whom G-d will choose, will be the holy one.

Numbers 16:18-19 describes the actual test. The 250 cohorts of Korach took fire-pans and stood at the entrance to the Tabernacle to face off with Moses and Aaron. Moses then cries out to G-d, warning the people of Israel to distance themselves from this wicked assembly. The earth opens and swallows Korach and many of his supporters. A fire then comes down from heaven and devours the 250 people who offered the incense.

Then, in an unexpected turn of events, G-d tells Moses to speak to Elazar the Priest, instructing him to collect all the fire-pans, for they have become holy. The fire-pans are then to be fashioned into a cover for the altar.

The commentators are greatly perplexed by the Al-mighty’s instructions. After all, the text itself says that the fire-pans belong to the people who “sinned with their souls.” How then are these pans worthy of being beaten into a cover for the altar? Furthermore, how could G-d call these items that were instruments of sin, “holy”?

The famed Bible teacher, Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997) in her Studies in the Book of Numbers, analyzes these issues and offers several answers, among them several solutions proposed by the classical commentaries.

Professor Leibowitz cites the opinion of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) who suggests that, since the fire-pans had been used as holy vessels for a would-be sacred purpose, their use for any other purpose was now strictly forbidden. Fashioning them into a cover for the altar would make certain that the fire-pans will always be treated in a respectful manner, appropriate for sacred items.

Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) questions Rashi’s thesis by stating that any vessel used in violation of the Torah should not become sanctified. Nachmanides himself suggests that perhaps this case is an exception, since it was Moses himself who instructed Korach and his cohorts to offer the incense in these fire-pans, rendering them permanently consecrated. Rejecting this conclusion, Nachmanides instead suggests that the fire-pans were not sanctified as holy vessels per se, but now that they have been fashioned into an altar cover they will serve as a sign to the children of Israel and remind them of the fate that befell those who rebelled against Moses and against G-d.

Nehama Leibowitz cites an alternate response to this issue that is offered by the Ha’amek Davar (commentary on the Torah, authored by the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1817-1893). The Netziv suggests that the 250 leaders who offered up incense on the fire-pans were not sinners, but rather saintly people who desperately wanted to serve G-d by performing a priestly duty. To quote the Ha’amek Davar: “They longed to do the will of G-d and gave their lives for the love of G-d.” Nehama Leibowitz rejects this explanation, saying that the Torah clearly does not regard these people as holy. In fact, scripture itself refers to them as wicked (Numbers 16:26) and sinful (Numbers 17:3).

Professor Leibowitz views as most plausible the opinion of the Akeidat Yitzchak (R. Isaac Arama, 1402-1494, Spain, philosophical-homiletical commentator). Despite the fact that the fire-pans were used by sinners, in the end the cause of truth was effectively served because the test symbolized the victory of truth over falsehood. Because of that, even though the intentions of the people were evil, the vessels themselves became sanctified. Scripture itself states about the fire-pans (Numbers 17:3): “V’yee’hoo l’oat liv’nay Yisrael,” that they should be a sign for the children of Israel. In effect, the fire-pans became a memorial confirming that no unauthorized person who is not from the descendants of Aaron should draw near to offer incense before G-d and suffer the dreadful fate of Korach and his company.

When Samson finds honey in the carcass of the lion that he had recently killed, he says (Judges 14:14):“May’az ya’tza ma’toak,” Sweetness has emerged from bitterness. It is a statement that is most appropriate in this instance. There are many who maintain that goodness can never emanate from evil. Yet, the example of the fire-pans in parashat Korach teaches that incorrect actions may indeed serve positive purposes and save others from future calamities. In fact, instruments of evil may sometimes be utilized  to teach good. The danger, of course, is that those who witness the evil may be seduced by the evil, because it is so alluring. However, since the fire-pans were designated to be used as a cover for the altar, they were always located in a place that was thoroughly holy, where the power of seduction would be minimal, if at all.

Many of us encounter “fire-pans” or their contemporary equivalents in our daily lives. We need to be alert to what these “fire-pans” can teach us and yet be on constant guard not to be burnt by their toxicity.

May you be blessed.