The Korah narrative which is the signature tale of this week’s parashah is marked by a rebellious beginning and a hopeful ending. Korah, the great grandson of Levi, and his cohorts challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron declaring, “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” Moses falls on his face in despair and puts these rebels to the test commanding, “You, Korah and all your band, take fire pans, and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before the Lord. Then the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be the holy one. You have gone too far sons of Levi!” (Numbers 16:6—7) After Korah’s allies, Dathan and Aviram refuse to appear before Moses, the trial goes forward and ultimately, the earth swallows these evildoers, a fire goes forth from God and consumes the two hundred and fifty men who were offering incense. What is so surprising to us as readers is not the substance of the story but the footnote which follows this dramatic narrative. God commands Moses: “remove the fire pans of those who have sinned . . . and let them be made as hammered sheets as plating for the altar — for once they have been used for offering to the Lord, they have become sacred — and let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel” (Numbers 17:3). Why would objects used for such dubious purposes be incorporated into the sacred altar which brings one closer to God?
Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nahman (1194—1270), a prolific Spanish bible commentator sheds light on this question. Specifically, Ramban provides two compelling answers. First, he argues that these fire pans were holy by virtue of Moses. It was a human act, that is to say, Moses’ command to use these fire pans for holy ends (seeking a divine response) that sanctifies these objects and makes them worthy for incorporation into the altar. Because Moses sought a sign from God, the pans were sanctified and so, needed to be used for another holy purpose. Ramban’s second interpretation is just as fascinating. The fire pans are holy, not because of Moses’ human act but rather because God sanctified them. God desired that the pans be employed as a sign to the Israelites — lest they rebel against God’s chosen leader. At once, Ramban’s two interpretations conflict and dovetail with each other. Whereas his first understanding demonstrates humans (i.e. Moses) wanting a distinct sign from God, the second interpretation argues that God desires to give humans a clear sign — one that will be remembered and learned from throughout the generations.
Korah and his cohorts teach us a powerful lesson. While we seek signs from God, God also gives us tangible signs in our world — signs that challenge us to learn and grow. And more significantly, we are given a lesson in the ability of transforming stumbling blocks into sacred moments. That which was used to distance the Israelites from God becomes the means to bring the Israelites closer — closer to God by learning from their past and moving ahead toward a hopeful future. May we have the capacity to take this Torah teaching to heart — looking for signs of God and elevating troubling moments in our personal lives to profound learning experiences.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.