Last week, we concluded with a number of questions:
1. Aharon, as Kohein, brings incense all the time, as part of the daily services. However, outsiders are strictly forbidden to bring incense outside of the kodesh — and the punishment is death! How could Moshe command the two hundred and fifty men to do something which would bring about their deaths? If, on the other hand, Aharon and the two hundred and fifty men were all bringing incense outside of the kodesh — what was the reason for such a severe punishment?
2. Moshe davened that the services of the two hundred and fifty should not be accepted. Why did Moshe have to daven that their incense offerings should not be accepted? Weren’t they doing something worthy of a terrible punishment?
3. Afterwards, Moshe is told to sanctify the incense-shovels of the men who died. Why were the shovels sanctified?
A sin does not become a mitzva…
Originally, each family had a designated person who would offer korbanos on behalf of the family. After the cheit of the eigel (the sin of the Golden Calf), it became necessary to standardize the avoda. The kohanim would do the avoda, and Aharon would be the head of the kohanim. The avoda would only be performed in the mishkan, and the incense brought on the incense altar. Special tools were designated, and sanctified, called “klei shareis”.
Korach disputed all this. Since the people had repented of their guilt, there was no reason why the avoda should not return to the entire people. There was no reason — according to Korach — for a special altar, for a mishkan, or even for kohanim. The special vessels — the “klei shareis” — were not required.
Moshe’s challenge: Since, according to Korach, the service did not require kohanim, special tools or the incense altar, Moshe gave them permission to bring the incense outside of the mishkan with ordinary vessels. This, they claimed, was sufficient for the avoda. According to the Torah, though, it was nothing at all. Just ordinary incense! A person is allowed, after all, to burn incense at home.
If there was, indeed, nothing wrong with what they did, why were they killed? The authors of Tosafos write that incense ground for the sake of the avoda becomes sanctified. Because of their intentions to do the services, by the time they had ground the incense, it had become sanctified. They were now guilty of offering sanctified incense outside of the mishkan, a crime punishable by death. (Kli Chemda, Parshas Korach, based on the Ramban)
The Power of the Avoda and Moshe’s Tefila
Moshe did not advise them to sanctify the incense. They knew the danger, and intended to bring incense for Hashem’s sake. They were virtually bringing about their own deaths.
The most unusual thing we see is that Moshe prayed that their offerings would not be accepted… Once they had in mind avoda for Hashem’s sake, there was a possibility that Hashem could be swayed to accept their offerings.
The services have an incredible power to draw Hashem’s will. Look at the altars and sacrifices of Bilam (B’midbar,chap. 23). Had Bilam’s services been successful, he would have manipulated the situation in his favor, even though he was trying to thwart Hashem’s will. Similarly, the incense offerings of the two hundred and fifty men, had the potential to influence Hashem, even though the men were not acting properly. This is especially so, since Moshe had given them permission.
A person can test himself: Is his goal to bring about the will of Hashem, or to bring about his own will? “Do His will as your will.” (Avos 2:4) There are two ways to fulfill this. One is to draw Hashem to you; the other is to raise yourself up to Hashem. Yes, you can manipulate Hashem’s world. But that is not the ideal; rather, put His will before your own — then merge your will into His. (Rav Yechiel Michel Feinstein, Parshas Balak)
From all this, we see how important it was for Moshe to request that Hashem not pay attention to the service of the two hundred and fifty men. There was a real danger that Korach’s plot would be successful!
The Sanctity of the Incense Shovels
Aharon’s son Elazar was told to gather the incense shovels of the dead men (B’midbar 17:2-5). The shovels, now sanctified, would be beaten into plates to cover the altar.
Why were the shovels made holy?
Ibn Ezra: Since they had used them for serving Hashem, the shovels became sanctified.
Ramban: Since they broke a prohibition, the vessels did not automatically become holy. However, it’s possible that since the two hundred and fifty men acted with Moshe’s permission — the vessels did become holy. The men sanctified the shovels, thinking that they would be answered by fire.
Once again, we see that directing one’s thoughts to Hashem can make a significant difference — there was a measure of service in the offering of the two hundred and fifty…
The Ramban continues: The proper explanation in my eyes is that Hashem sanctified them in order to make a sign for Bnei Yisrael. As the verse says, “It should be a reminder that only the offspring of Aharon may bring incense before Hashem, so as not to be like Korach and his men…” (B’midbar 17:5)
See Akeidas Yitzchok — Hashem sanctified the shovels because through them the truth had become known.