This week’s portion, Korach (Num. 16:1 – 18:32) presents the most serious challenge to Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership of the Israelites. Korach, their first cousin, challenges Aaron’s exclusive right to the priesthood. At the same time, Dathan and Abiram question Moses’ leadership ability. The two incidents lead to a rebellion. Moses orders Korach’s would-be priests to bring their firepans and offer incense along with Aaron before God in the sanctuary. God punishes Korach and his followers by “opening the mouth of the earth” which swallows them, and all their possessions. “And a fire went forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty representatives offering the incense” (Num.16:35).
After this incident, God commands Moses to order Eleazar, the son of Aaron, to collect the firepans out of the ashes because, having been used to make a sacred offering, they are now sacred. Eleazar molds the firepans into copper plating for the altar, at God’s command. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, as quoted in the Etz Hayim Torah commentary, taught that the holiness of the firepans symbolizes the necessary role played by skeptics and agnostics in keeping religion honest and healthy.
Judaism has, and should always, encourage sincere questioning and challenging of the status quo. And the fact that these firepans of the rebels become a part of the sanctuary illustrates our desire to imbue every human act, positive or negative, with God’s stamp of holiness.