A lot of ink has been used to try to understand the parasha Korach, this week’s installment in the ongoing saga of the wanderings of the Israelites. Out in the desert, trying to get from point A (Egypt) to point B (Canaan), the large but largely unformed community struggles to establish itself as an identifiable unit. God’s laws at Sinai can only do so much. The people have to feel like they’re a real community, and be ready to function as one.
So here we have Korach, a first cousin of Moses and Aaron. He is a member of the Kohatites, a highly respected clan within the Levites, charged with the honor of not only being part of the inner protective circle , literally, around the Tabernacle as it travels, but they have very specific “take down and set up” responsibilities when the camp stops and starts traveling again. They are responsible for the sacred utensils, the ark, tables, and lampstands – the real inner workings of the Mishkan (Tabernacle.)
One day, Korach gather 250 followers and challenges Moses and Aaron directly: “They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy; all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” (Num 16:3) Moses challenges them right back with a “duel by firepans”; they are to come back to the Mishkan the next morning, with their firepans and incense, and see whom God chooses. Given that Korach and his band remembered what happened to Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu back in Leviticus, when they brought “strange fire” to the Tabernacle in their firepans and were summarily zapped, the stakes were pretty clear.
The summary of what happened next is that God chose Moses and Aaron. Korach and his followers were swallowed up by an earthquake. Then there’s a plague, and Aaron quickly made an offering on behalf of the people, and he “stood between the living and the dead” as the plague was halted. Very dramatic.
But just after the earthquake, before the plague, there’s a description that has caught the attention of many a commentator. God tells Moses to go get the very firepans with which the rebels had challenged his authority. They had become “sacred – from among the charred remains – and scatter the coals…Remove the firepans of those who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and let them be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar” (Num 17:3). They have become sacred, yet they are also to serve as a warning to the people that no one but Aaron’s line should presume to offer incense to God.
I find it interesting that God should tell Moses to fashion a part of the altar with the “sinful” yet now sacred firepans of Korach and his followers. It’s not just the idea that something that was bred in rebellion could become part of the very core institution of the community, though that is worth a whole handful of futher explorations. Rather, I find it interesting that there is still a spot in the Tabernacle itself that could use some more plating.
We had chapters and chapters of details in Leviticus on building the Tabernacle. Not one curtain or cubit was left undescribed. How is it, then, there’s a need for still more copper sheeting? Was there a spot left undone, unfinished?
God gave all the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle, and it seemed pretty thorough, but maybe that part that was unfinished had to come from the people themselves. More importantly, it had to come from the dissent and doubt. The rebellion of Korach and his followers became part of the national story, so that the Tabernacle (and by extension, the Torah) was effectively “finished” by the people themselves.
When God created Eden, and placed Adam and Eve in the Garden, it was a perfect setting. Sort of. Yet there was still something unfinished – and ultimately, God knew it – the realization of the potential of human choice. Though it ruined the perfection of the Garden, it allowed for the flourishing of the human mind and spirit, making the real-life gardens holy. God’s part in making the Mishkan may have been finished, and it may have been perfect, but it still lacked the dangerous, passionate, rebellious and ultimately sacred spirit of humanity.