This week’s portion deals with the story of Korach and his associates, who, during the period of desert wanderings following the Exodus, fomented a rebellion against Moses. Korach charges that Moses and Aaron have elevated themselves above the community: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)
Moses proposes to leave the resolution to God. He challenges Korach and his followers to appear the next day with their offerings of incense in their fire pans, as Moses and Aaron will presumably appear with theirs. The assumption seems to be that those whose offerings are accepted will be the favored of God; the others will be rejected. A more dramatic conclusion ensues, as Korach and those aligned with him are swallowed into the earth.
The fate of the fire pans runs as a thread through this parsha. The same fire pans that Korach proposed to place his incense offering in are recovered, and Moses orders that they be hammered into sheets that can be used as plating for the altar. It seems curious that the very symbol of rebellion should secure a place at the most sacred site of the ancient Israelite sanctuary; one might rather have expected Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons to take the infidels’ implements and dispose of them outside the Israelite camp.
This might have been explained as a symbolic warning of banishment for anyone else eager to pursue Korach’s rebellion, or to cut off any possibility of these residual instruments serving as a rallying point or memorial for those who harbored thoughts of rebellion against Moses. Instead, the fire pans are apparently welded to the altar, “so that no outsider — one not of Aaron’s offspring — should presume to offer incense before the Lord and suffer the fate of Korach and his band.” (Numbers 17:5) What contemporary commentators also note, however, is that having come into contact with the sanctity of the sanctuary, these implements have absorbed the numinous sacred nature such contact confers, and cannot be disposed of.
Fire pans make another appearance in the story. Subsequent to the dispatching of Korach, a plague appears among the community as a sign of God’s displeasure. Moses commands Aaron to take his fire pan, place incense on it to make an expiation offering, and stand between “living and the dead” in order to, as it were, draw a “fire line” to halt the plague’s advance, which proves effective.
So we see three references to fire pans. The first is linked to rebellion, the second with the altar, which is linked to communion with God. The third association is with intervention to abort a plague.
From this we learn that religious symbols almost always have more than one meaning. How, by whom, and for what purpose they are used determines what their meaning will be in a given situation. It is up to us to deploy the rich resources of our Jewish symbol system in ways that serve the purposes of holiness.