At the conclusion of the story of Korach’s rebellion, we find this commandment:

36 The LORD said to Moses, 37 “Tell Eleazar son of Aaron, the priest, to take the censers out of the smoldering remains and scatter the coals some distance away, for the censers are holy- 38 the censers of the men who sinned at the cost of their lives. Hammer the censers into sheets to overlay the altar, for they were presented before the LORD and have become holy. Let them be a sign to the Israelites.”

39 So Eleazar the priest collected the bronze censers brought by those who had been burned up, and he had them hammered out to overlay the altar, 40 as the LORD directed him through Moses. This was to remind the Israelites that no one except a descendant of Aaron should come to burn incense before the LORD, or he would become like Korah and his followers.

This is a fascinating denouement to a riveting story, raising a host of interesting questions: Why does God refer to the censers as holy? Why are they made into an overlay for the altar? Why is an object of the tabernacle allowed–demanded–to be changed?

Ramban offers an answer to the first question. Weren’t these censers used for nefarious purposes? Shouldn’t they be unholy for that reason? Ramban argues that they were in fact holy because they were used by Moses to demonstrate God’s supremacy. By answering Korach’s claims and asserting the rightful place of Moses and Aaron and their descendents, the censers became holy.

The Torah itself responds to the second question: The overlay for the altar is to remind the Israelites of what happened to Korach and his followers, and that they should therefore follow the established rules. This is the final line of the story, and forms one of its basic enduring messages.

The classical commentators do not comment on the third question, why is this object commanded to be changed? But an answer might come from a teaching of the Sefas Emes that I taught earlier this year. The teaching took up the question of why the altar in the Tabernacle was of different proportions than that in Solomon’s Temple. While some commentators attempt to harmonize the sources, the Sefas Emes instead highlights the difference, and uses the difference to argue that every generation experiences God in its own way; the way that Solomon experienced and related to God fit his time and place, just as Moses’s relation with God fit his era.

This is of course a potential source of instablility, particularly in the context of the Korach story, where the very roots of authority are at stake. Yet the Rabbis treated Korach and his group with ambivalence–while the dominant opinion was that they had no place in the world to come, the Tosefta records the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah ben Betera that says that they do. The midrash is likewise ambivalent, all of which leads to the thought that perhaps the story of Korach is grounded in greater subtlety than polemics. Perhaps its message is one not simply of cutting off, but simultaneously of the complexities inherent in a close relationship with the holy.

If that is the case, then we can read the story of Korach as telling us not that we should avoid asking certain questions, but that the context of those questions matters. There is a political reality to our question-asking, there are times and places for things. Knowing the right time and place, understanding the context, is as important as the question itself.

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