Perfected Pans

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Korach, a prestigious member of the Tribe of Levi, surrounds himself with Nadav and Avihu and 250 prominent men to challenge the authority of Moshe in appointing himself and Aharon as leaders of Bnei Yisroel. After all, Korach claims, the entire assembly is holy and God is within them. Why should you exalt yourselves above the Congregation of God? Moshe ponders how to respond to the challenge. He proclaims that in the morning [probably hoping they would do teshuvah and retract. CKS], Hashem will prove whom He has chosen. Moshe suggests the following test. Korach and his men should each take a fire pan, put fire on it and place ketoret/incense in it, and Aharon will do the same. The offering that Hashem accepts will prove whom He has chosen to serve Him. Just as Moshe expected, Hashem chose only Aharon’s offering. Moshe then decreed an unusual punishment for Korach: The earth would “open its mouth” and swallow up Korach and all that belonged to him. After Korach’s punishment, a fire consumed the assembled rebels to punish them as well.

Interestingly, although these fire pans were used in rebellion to Hashem and Moshe, Hashem commands that they be hammered out and used as a covering for the altar, for they have are holy. Under the circumstances, how could they be holy? Rashi writes that since they were made for sacred service to Hashem, albeit with improper motivation, they were holy. Ramban, however, refutes this explanation. After all, they were used by laymen to bring an alien, unsanctioned offering to Hashem. Instead, Ramban suggests that the pans became holy because Moshe had commanded Korach to bring them for Hashem, and they hoped that Hashem would accept their incense offering. Therefore Hashem declared them holy, to serve a reminder to Bnei Yisroel that only a kohein may serve up the incense to Hashem.

The following morning, Bnei Yisroel were angry at Moshe for having killed “the people of Hashem.” Hashem started a plague to engulf the people. As usual, Moshe interceded for Bnei Yisroel. Moshe instructed Aharon to quickly take the pan with fire and incense and run among the people. This action immediately stopped the plague. 

The Tosher Rebbe in Avodat Avodah raises two questions on this incident. First, how could Moshe set up Korach and his assembly for assured failure in this plan. Further, how could something that could remind Hashem of sins be sanctified? Even on Yom Kippur the kohein gadol does not wear gold to enter the Holy of Holies, lest it remind Hashem of the sin of the golden calf.

Perhaps by probing the dual power of the ketoret we can begin to understand the purpose in forming the fire pans into a covering for the altar that would act as a reminder to Bnei Yisroel. While those who brought the unsanctioned ketoret were killed, the ketoret also stopped the plague that began to engulf the angry nation who complained about the death of the rebellious assembly, writes Rabbi Asher Weiss. This message, that it is Hashem’s power, not the ketoret, was one the people needed to remember.

The power of the ketoret lies in its ability to fight the yetzer horo face to face, writes Rabbi Pincus. The difference between an animal sacrificial offering and the ketoret is the difference between life and death. When one sacrifices an animal, he is shedding its blood, symbolically proclaiming his own willingness to die for Hashem’s sake. With the incense offering, no blood is shed. It is a loftier and more difficult ideal. It proclaims a willingness to live for Hashem’s sake. It means we desire to live not just for physical pleasure, for existence on a transient physical level, but to live an elevated, spiritual life, a life of eternal joy.

Hashem created us to enjoy life, and the greatest pleasure is to enjoy the radiance of Hashem’s presence. Hashem provides us with so many gifts, gifts we generally take for granted. Yes, we are certainly permitted and encouraged to enjoy the pleasures Hashem has offered us in this world, but we are to recognize that these are gifts from Hashem, and we are to elevate the physical to the spiritual. We can admire the apple we are about to eat, but we elevate it by reciting a brachah before we bite. We can provide a comfortable living space for ourselves and our families, but we must also acknowledge its source and dedicate some of the abundance Hashem has provided for us by sharing it with those less fortunate.

The highest sensual pleasure is achieved through the sense of smell. It elevates the soul. There are no side effects to breathing a pleasant scent. The scent of the incense perfumed all of Yerushalayim, sometimes even as far as Jericho during the Temple period. Because of its spiritual connection, the yetzer horo has no power over the ketoret. During the Temple period, a lottery would be drawn each day to determine which kohein would offer the incense. A kohein could receive this privilege only once. Whichever kohein offered the incense was guaranteed to become rich, for the satan would have no power to corrupt him. He would use his wealth in spiritual ways. We too must learn that whatever we possess physically and materially are gifts from Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and we are to enjoy them in their greatest potential by elevating them to Hashem’s service.

Within this context, Rebbetzin Smiles suggests that the beautiful flowers generally decorating a wedding venue should be more than merely ornamental. They should remind us of Har Sinai covered with flowers when we received the Torah, and their scent should maintain a spiritual connection. On the other hand, Covid 19 has forced the scaling back of the physical and material aspects of smachot, but not the scaling back of their spiritual aspect. Interestingly, one of the symptoms of this plague is the loss of a sense of smell. Perhaps the lesson is that we need to strengthen our spiritual connections.

Why did Moshe choose offering the ketoret as the test for Korach and his assembly? The Tosher Rebbe suggests that since the ketoret had the power to thwart the yetzer horo, the people would recognize their egregious error, would yearn to reconnect with Hashem, and do teshuvah. Unfortunately, they were so immersed in their own ego that it tainted their offering, and left left no room for their spiritual connection to Hashem. 

Rabbi Reiss in MeiroshTzurim presents the ideal example of someone acting with the higher purpose of serving Hashem. Rochel Imeinu wanted desperately to marry Yaakov Avinu, and plans had in fact already been put in place to ensure the wedding. Although Rochel Imeinu deeply loved Yaakov, she also had a higher, spiritual motivation in wanting to marry him. Rochel knew that Yaakov was destined to father the Shivtei Kah/Tribes of Hashem. But Rochel also understood that this mission could be accomplished through another woman. So when her father substituted Leah in her place, Rochel sublimated her personal desire to that of Hakodosh Boruch Hu; she revealed to Leah the signs she and Yaakov had agreed upon as code to her identity under the marriage canopy. She sublimated her desire to marry Yaakov to the greater mission of creating the Nation of Israel. The righteous focus their attention on bringing satisfaction to Hashem in every way, not necessarily through themselves. Korach was focused on personally being the vehicle, on his own ego.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes the difference between a mystic and a philosopher. The philosopher is convinced that he exists [I think therefore I am,” - Descartes], so he ponders the existence of God. The mystic, on the other hand, is convinced of God’s existence, and focuses on his own purpose in the grand scheme.

Korach perverted the mystic’s attitude by introducing the arrogance of the philosopher. This was the test of the ketoret, and this is why Moshe commanded it be brought in brass pans rather than in the usual gold pans. Throughout Tanach, brass represents strength, writes the Shem Mishmuel. Literally, brass describes the strong walls of a city. Symbolically, it is used to refer to strength of conviction, a willingness to stand up for one’s principle despite the odds. This trait can be either positive or negative. It can be the strength Yaakov needed to withstand the evils of Esau and Lavan, or it can be the arrogance of King Yeshayahu in defying Hashem’s words delivered through the Prophet Yirmiyahu.

This strength of character was not intrinsically bad, continues the Shem Mishmuel. Included in Korach’s actions was the desire to stand up to principle. However, he misused this strength and defied Hashem’s choice. Therefore Moshe was told to throw away the fire, the misplaced passion, but use the brass of strength for the holiness still contained within the fire pans and fashion the pans into a covering for the altar. Each aspect of Korach’s action was treated according to its own merits of reward or punishment. As Rabbi Zeichick writes, Hashem’s vision acts like zoom lens on a camera, picking up every detail, every brush stroke. A positive does not negate a negative, and each gets its appropriate response. Hashem rewarded the small element of leshem shamayim/altruistic motivation while punishing the sin. Let us not fall into the trap of sullying our own mitzvah performance with our personal, egocentric motivations.

We can see Hashem’s exercising this same principle of responding with reward or punishment for each detail and element of one’s actions with Yerovam ben Nevat. Yeravam had criticized King Solomon for building a palace for his Egyptian wife along a route that Bnei Yisroel used when they came to Yerushalayim for the Festivals. The palace land site forced Bnei Yisroel to take a longer, circuitous route to Yerushalayim. For appropriately reproving the king, Yerovam was rewarded by himself becoming king of the Ten Tribes when the kingdom was split. However, because he reproved Solomon in public, Yerovam’s dynasty would not be permanent. The good and the bad do not cancel each other out, but Hashem responds to each separately. In this context, Rabbi Scheinberg notes that when Hashem sees us sinning, He comes very close to us, hoping to find some good embedded in our actions.

So the fire pans had an element of sanctity. But the Talellei Orot notes that their sanctity was actually reduced. While they had been used for the actual incense offering, now they were only the cover upon which the pan with the offering would be placed. Hashem Himself demoted the pans to give Bnei Yisroel the message that Korach’s actions were indeed not holy. As the Tiv Hatorah explains, when you sin, you need to create for yourself a reminder not to do this again. When we ourselves remember, Hashem does not need to remember.

Rav S. R. Hirsch notes a different element of sanctity in the fire pans. They served as testimony that Hashem chose Aharon to the priestly service. Since the sanctity of the of the Sanctuary depends on this fact, the purpose of the fire pans was achieved. As such, they remain a constant sign and a warning of this truth to Bnei Yisroel. By their deaths, Korach and his assembly, who had tried to undermine this truth actually further validated it, while the fire pans themselves, the instrument of proof, became sanctified and served as a constant reminder and sign of how the sanctity of the Sanctuary is to be maintained.

The purpose of a sign, writes Rav Chaim Shmulevits is Sichot Mussar, is not for Hashem to remember, but to awaken ourselves and to extract a lesson for ourselves and create a positive response whenever we are confronted with this reminder. Reminders are not just the shopping list, post it notes, or the string around the finger. We have the ability to improve ourselves in the best Jewish sense by creating mini reminders to help us both to act positively and refrain from acting negatively, to refrain from sin and to do mitzvoth with the correct motivation.