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Korach – Incense & the Copper Overlay

Jun 15, 2023

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach son of Yizhar of the tribe of Levi leads a rebellion of two hundred fifty men against God and Moses. In their initial complaint, Korach and his followers attacked Moses and Aaron for seizing power. It goes without saying that Korach did not accept the possibility that God Himself had chosen Moses and Aaron for their leadership roles.

They gathered against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! 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?” – Numbers 16:3

To refute the claims of the rebels, Moses came up with a public test.

[Moses] spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, “Tomorrow morning the Lord will show who is His and who is holy, and will cause him to come near to Him. That one whom He chooses He will cause to come near to Him. Do this: Take firepans, Korach and all your company; put fire in them and put incense in them before the Lord tomorrow, and it shall be that the man whom the Lord chooses is the holy one. You take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi!” – Numbers 16:5-7

Moses instructed all two hundred fifty and Aaron to take firepans and to burn incense to God. As soon as they did this, the response from God was swift and severe.

A fire came forth from God and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were bringing the incense. –  Numbers 16:35

In the aftermath of this dramatic event, having verified His choice of Moses and Aaron for leadership, God proceeded to give Moses a peculiar instruction. 

Speak to Elazar the son of Aaron the priest and have him lift up the firepans from the inferno, and scatter the fire yonder, for they were sanctified; the firepans of these sinners [who paid] with their lives, and make them into hammered sheets to overlay the altar. So Elazar the priest took the copper firepans – those that the fire victims brought – and hammered them into a covering for the altar. [This was] a reminder for the People of Israel so that a commoner shall never approach – one who is not a descendant of Aaron – to burn incense before the Lord; so as not to be like Korach and his congregation. – Numbers 17:2-5

Here, God instructed Moses that the copper firepans used by the 250 rebels were to be made into a copper overlay for the altar. As God explained, this copper overlay would serve as a permanent reminder that any non-priest is forbidden from bringing an incense offering to God. To better understand the meaning behind God’s instruction to Moses, let’s first learn a bit more about the altar the hammered copper firepans would be covering.

There were two altars in the Tabernacle. There was a smaller gold-covered altar inside the sanctuary that was used for the daily incense offering. This altar is referred to as the “incense altar” (see Exodus 30:1). A second much larger altar was in the courtyard, outside the sanctuary. It was upon this altar that portions of the sacrifices and the daily offerings were burnt. It is important to note that it was this larger altar that was to be covered by the copper from the firepans, not the incense altar in the sanctuary.

Why is this altar the appropriate venue for a reminder that no non-priest is allowed to bring incense? To deal with this question we must first understand why the offering of incense was chosen as the appropriate test of the validity of the rebellious group.

In Leviticus 10, Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, were killed by God. Their sin was the following. 

Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, took, each of them his firepan, placed fire upon it and then placed incense upon it and they brought an alien fire which He had not commanded them. – Leviticus 10:1

The incense offering is the most intimate service to God. It is incense that is offered in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. Incense was the only offering ever brought into the Holy of Holies, the innermost and most sacred place in the Tabernacle. Nadav and Avihu wanted to approach God in the most intimate way. But they attempted to have intimacy with God that was not requested by God. Instead of the warmth of God’s presence, they were consumed by a deadly fire.

Among the many offerings listed in the Torah, there are offerings that may be brought when a person simply wishes to be close to God, not as atonement for any sin. These are called shelamim – peace offerings. A person who desires closeness with God may bring one of these offerings at almost any time. Incense, unlike a peace offering, is more intimate. And similar to interpersonal relationships, intimacy must be invited. Uninvited intimacy is an offensive violation of the relationship.

Korach and his rebels argued that Aaron and Moses should not have special status. They argued that every person in Israel ought to be equivalent. 

“for the entire congregation are all holy and the Lord is in their midst; why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’” – Num. 17:3

They claimed that it is not right that only Aaron is permitted to serve God in the most intimate way. All of Israel ought to be allowed to approach God to serve him equally. Moses’ response was that God chose this arrangement and it is not for us to decide who serves God and in what way. Just because a particular person wants to serve God in a particular way does not suffice to permit the service to be done.

Considering how Nadav and Avihu died, it is clear that Moses chose incense as the test because of this earlier event. The Jewish sages highlight this connection in this Midrashic comment, suggesting Moses’ thinking to illustrate this exact point.

Here you have the service that is beloved over all others – the incense which is the beloved of all offerings – but it is poisonous, for with it Nadav and Avihu were burnt. Therefore, he warned [the rebels], ‘It shall be that the man that God shall choose is the holy one.'(Num 16:7) – Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 18:8

The deadly lesson was that it is God, and only God, who sets the parameters of our relationship. We dare not violate God’s boundaries when they appear unfair or because we fail to understand them.

As explained earlier, the outer altar – the one that was to be overlaid with the copper from the firepans – stood in the courtyard. It was on this altar that all offerings were burnt. While a non-priest was permitted to enter this courtyard to bring an offering, he was not allowed to ascend the altar. (This altar was very large and had a ramp to carry up the offerings to be burnt.) A non-priest was not allowed to go beyond the courtyard in front of this altar. Beyond this altar was the sanctuary which contained the Menorah, the Table, and the Incense Altar. Beyond the sanctuary was the Holy of Holies which contained the Ark of the Covenant.

It follows that the Menorah, Table, Incense Altar, and Ark were almost never seen by any non-priest. The altar in the courtyard was the point beyond which the non-priest was forbidden to go. He was not even allowed to bring his own offering up the ramp to the top of the altar. For this reason, the outer altar was actually the ideal place for a reminder of the rebellion of Korach.

Any time a non-priest would approach the large altar, he would see the copper overlay. This overlay would remind him of the incident of the rebellion of Korach and the 250 men. He would thus be reminded, lest he question the rules and his own place in the hierarchy, that God alone sets the boundaries. 

The message of the copper overlay made from the rebels’ firepans is twofold. First, we are reminded that God ordains different roles for different people. We must humbly accept that we each have our role to play, and we must be careful not allow our egos to cause us to question God’s choices, as Korach did. Second, the copper overlay reminds us that it is on God’s own terms – and not our own – that we worship Him.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast

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