In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, we are told of a challenge to Moses and Aaron’s leadership in the desert. Moses and Aaron’s cousin Korach and 250 leaders of the Jewish people come to Moshe and Aaron and say, “The whole people are holy and God is in their midst, so why do you elevate yourselves over the congregation of God?” Moses replies that they should let God decide who is chosen by all of them taking fire pans with incense in them and seeing what God does. Then Moses rebukes Korach: “Listen to me, sons of Levi. Isn’t it enough that God separated you from the rest of the people, to bring you close to Him to serve in the Tabernacle and to serve the people; and now you desire the priesthood also?” The following morning as they stand with their fire pans a fire comes forth from God and instead of consuming the incense in their fire pans it consumes the 250 men.
In the end of the portion the Torah tells us what Aaron should do with these 250 fire pans of the dead men. “The fire pans of these people who have sinned with their souls, you shall hammer out and make from them a covering for the altar, for they offered them before God and they became sanctified, and they shall be a sign to the Children of Israel.”
This reminds us of an earlier story in the Torah. Just after the Tabernacle is finished and the first offering is brought, we are told that two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Aviho, bring in their fire pans a “strange fire.” Then a fire comes out from before God and consumes them, according to the Talmud, in exactly the same way as Korach’s 250 men. Moses then tells Aaron, “this is what God meant when He said, ‘I will be sanctified through those that are close to me (i.e. through your sons).'”
In both cases it seems that through some kind of sin incense is brought, the people who brought it are consumed by fire and yet some kind of holiness results. Why?
It is said that Aaron’s two sons actually meant well. When they saw that God was revealed in the tabernacle for the first time they immediately wanted to come as close to God as they could, throwing all caution to the wind.
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin of Voloshin (1817-1893), in his book Hamek Davar (Numbers 16:1), explains that the 250 men were not rebelling against Moses and Aaron but actually meant well, having the same no holds barred desire for God as Aaron’s two sons. Hamek Davar draws on the Divine fire metaphor: “Not being priests, which could have given them closeness to God, was like a fire burning within them … They wanted to give up their souls for the love of God … Since their intentions were positive, a holy fire from God was what consumed them …”
The desire to grasp the Divine is not enough; we must know that each of us has a unique part of Torah that is ours. If we try to usurp someone else’s, though our intentions may be good, it can result in tragedy. We also cannot just “lunge toward Mount Sinai.” We may desire the highest levels of holiness but it must be achieved gradually and organically with balance and care.
Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham prepared this week’s Torah portion.