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Taste of Torah: Korah

June 25, 2020

In parashat Korah, we read of the Levite member of B’nai Yisrael of the same name, who leads a rebellion over the leadership of Moshe and Aharon. In response, Moshe sets up a holiness test in which each offers a sacrifice to God in pans of fire. Upon lighting their incense, God’s presence appears and a fire leaps up from some of the pans, consuming and killing hundreds of Korah’s followers. Following this stunning response to a traumatic moment in the collective memory of the people, God commands Aharon’s son, Eleazar, to take the firepans and repurpose them into plates to cover the Mishkan:

וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: אֱמֹר אֶל-אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן וְיָרֵם אֶת-הַמַּחְתֹּת מִבֵּין הַשְּׂרֵפָה וְאֶת-הָאֵשׁ זְרֵה-הָלְאָה כִּי קָדֵשׁוּ: אֵת מַחְתּוֹת הַחַטָּאִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּנַפְשֹׁתָם וְעָשׂוּ אֹתָם רִקֻּעֵי פַחִים צִפּוּי לַמִּזְבֵּחַ כִּי-הִקְרִיבֻם לִפְנֵי-ה’ וַיִּקְדָּשׁוּ וְיִהְיוּ לְאוֹת לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Order Eleazar son of Aaron the priest to remove the fire pans—for they have become sacred—from among the charred remains; and scatter the coals abroad. [Remove] the fire pans of those who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and let them be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar—for once they have been used for offering to Adonai, they have become sacred—and let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel.

Numbers 17:1-3

The repurposing of these fire pans is a fascinating detail offering powerful lessons in how we move on from traumatic moments in our own lives. Rabbi Marc Katz teaches that for B’nai Yisrael, these fire pans were like scars: “everlasting reminders of the pain of rebellion.” The people were therefore faced with the choice of hiding these scars, displaying them, or reimagining them. Hiding the firepans may have been tempting, but surely they would have been found from time to time, recalling painful memories of rebellion. Displaying them would allow those memories to remain public, but might also be seen as an effort to shame the people. By repurposing the firepans into plates of the Mishkan, however, they became a reminder of the past, while helping the people to find new meaning and holiness for the future.

Like B’nai Yisrael, we too carry our own scars, and, along with them, we carry those very same choices. We can hide the pain of our most difficult experiences, knowing that from time to time a trigger will bring that pain back to the surface. We can display it, wearing it outwardly and perhaps not fully moving on. Or, like Elazar, we can repurpose it. We can share our stories and, in so doing, bring healing and understanding to others. We can share the most vulnerable parts of ourselves with those who love and support us and, in allowing them to become proximate to our truths, we can bring forth a more loving, understanding, and compassionate world. 

Cantor David Mintz

Written By Cantor David Mintz

Cantor David Mintz serves as the director of the Center for Prayer and Spirituality at B’nai Jeshurun. He lives on the Upper West Side with his wife, Deborah and their son, Nadav.