“And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Say to Elazar, the son of Aharon, the Kohen, that he should pick up the censers from the burned area and throw the fire away, because they have become sanctified – the censers of these who sinned at the cost of their lives. And they shall make them into flattened out plates as an overlay for the altar, for they brought them before Hashem and have become sanctified. And they shall be a sign for Bnai Yisrael. And Elazar the Kohen took the copper censers which the fire victims had brought, and they hammered them out as an overlay for the altar, as a reminder for Bnai Yisrael, so that no outsider, who is not a descendant of Aharon shall approach to burn incense before Hashem. And one should not be like Korach and his company, as Hashem spoke regarding him through Moshe.” (BeMidbar 17:1-5)
Parshat Korach describes the rebellion of Korah, Datan, Aviram and their followers against Moshe. This group challenged Moshe’s leadership. The specific issues upon which the rebellion focused are not described in detail. However, it is apparent that Korach and his followers opposed the appointment of a specific family to serve as Kohanim. They believed that the entire nation was endowed with sanctity and that all members of Bnai Yisrael should be equal in their right to serve Hashem in His Mishcan. Moshe’s contention was that his appointment of Aharon and his descendants to serve as Kohanim did not represent a personal decision. Moshe followed the commandment of Hashem.
Moshe attempted to resolve the issue through discussion. However, he suggested that if Korach and his followers absolutely insisted on challenging Aharon’s appointment, then the issue should be decided through a simple test. Aharon and the other aspirants for the priesthood should each take a censer and offer incense in the courtyard of the Mishcan. Hashem will demonstrate through His response which of these individuals is His chosen Kohen Gadol.
Korach and his followers accepted this challenge. They brought their censers to the Mishcan’s courtyard, added coals to their censers, and placed incense of the coals. Aharon’s offering was accepted. But a flame descended from the heavens and consumed the pretenders.
Our passages deal with the aftermath of these events. Hashem commands Moshe to communicate a set of instructions to Elazar – Aharon’s son. There are two elements to these instructions. Elazar is to proceed to the area of the conflagration. The first element is that he is to dispose of the contents of the pretenders’ censers. He to empty the contents to the ground. Second, Hashem tells Moshe that the censers used by Aharon’s opponents have been sanctified. Elazar is to take the censers and create from them a covering for the altar. This covering will be a reminder to Bnai Yisrael that no person who is not a descendant of Aharon is authorized to offer incense – or other sacrifices – to Hashem.
On the surface these instructions are easily understood. Elazar is to create a permanent reminder of these events. The censers are perfect for this function. They can be beat into flat sheets and fashioned into a covering for the altar situated in the courtyard of the Mishcan. Bnai Yisrael will see this covering each time they looked upon the altar. The covering will remind them that the service performed through the altar – the offering of sacrifices – is preserved for Aharon and the Kohanim.
However, a closer analysis of these instructions suggests a number of problems. First, Moshe is to instruct Elazar to fling the contents of the censers to the ground. Why is this instruction needed? Apparently, Hashem is communicating to Moshe that the ashes of the offering do not require any special treatment. What is this special treatment? Why would Moshe think that special treatment is required? Why is this treatment not required?
Before considering any further problems, let us answer this question. Each day, sacrifices were offered on the altar. These offerings generated ashes. The ashes had sanctity. This sanctity dictated that the ashes receive special treatment. They were removed from the altar and placed in a predetermined place. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that Hashem was communicating to Moshe that the ashes of the offerings of the pretenders have no sanctity. They do not require the special treatment afforded to the remnants of sacrifices. Instead, they should be unceremoniously flung to the ground.
This explanation responds to the first question but it creates a second problem. Hashem explained to Moshe that the censers of Aharon’s opponents were sanctified. These were formed into a covering for the altar. This is paradoxical. The offerings of the pretenders had no sanctity and were treated disdainfully. But the censers were sanctified and were used to create a covering for the altar!
In order to resolve this paradox it is important to understand it more fully. Moshe was told that the remnants of the offerings of the pretenders did not have sanctity. This implies that their offerings were not regarded as legitimate acts of avodah – service to Hashem. This status was a result of the very nature of the test. All of the contenders offered incense. Only Aharon’s offering was accepted. This demonstrated that his offering was regarded by Hashem as a legitimate act of avodah. The other offerings were rejected. The status of avodah was not conferred upon them. Therefore, the ashes of the offerings of the pretenders had no sanctity. They were the ashes from an activity of pseudo-avodah. However, according to this analysis, it follows that the censers the pretenders selected to use for their offerings should also not have sanctity. They selected these censers for an activity that was not truly avodah. They should not have any special status. However, this is not the case. Hashem instructed Moshe that these censers did have sanctity and should be used to fashion a covering for the altar.
Sforno suggests a response to this paradox. He concedes that the selection of these censers for use in this offering did not confer any sanctity upon them. However, he suggests that since these censers did have sanctity, we must conclude that the pretenders had dedicated them for other service in the Mishcan in addition to this offering. The use of the censers in this offering did not confer upon them sanctity. However, the dedication of the censers for more general use in the Mishcan was effective in conferring upon them sanctity. It must be acknowledged that it seems odd that these pretenders designated their censers for other service in the Mishcan and not simply for this specific occasion. It seems that Sforno is forced to this conclusion. He reasons that if the censers were only used in the Mishcan on this single occasion and they had not been designated for any other service, they could not have become sanctified. Therefore, it must be deduced that the censers had been designated for other service in the Mishcan.
Rashi does not seem to be bothered by our problem. He seems to indicate that the censers received their sanctity from this offering. This is Nachmanides’ understanding of Rashi’s position. Nachmanides asks the obvious question on this position. The offering was rejected. This means that the only offering for which censers were designated was an invalid offering. This should not confer sanctity on the censers. Nachmanides provides a response on Rashi’s behalf. He explains that although the offering was rejected, the pretenders were responding to Moshe’s challenge. They were participating in a challenge commanded by Moshe. They believed that their offerings would be accepted. Therefore, the designation of the censers for use in the challenge imposed by Moshe conferred sanctity upon them.
Ultimately, Nachmanides rejects this explanation and proposes an alternative. He argues that Hashem is not telling Moshe that the censers acquired sanctity through the designation of Aharon’s opponents. Instead, Hashem is telling Moshe that He has conferred sanctity upon them in order that they may become a reminder to Bnai Yisrael of the authority of Aharon and his descendents. In other words, any designation that these opponents may have given to the censers was misguided and did not confer sanctity. However, Hashem designated these censers as a memorial. This conferred sanctity upon them.
We can understand Sforno’s and Nachmanides’ resolution of the paradox. According to both of these opinions, the offerings of the pretenders were not actual avodah. Therefore, the ashes from these offerings had no sanctity and the use of the censers in these offerings did not confer any sanctity upon them. Their sanctity was derived from some other source. Sforno and Nachmanides suggest alternative possibilities for this source. However, even with Nachmanides’ clarification, Rashi’s resolution of the paradox is not evident. The censers acquired their sanctity when they were selected and designated for use in this contest imposed by Moshe. But if the censers acquired sanctity in this manner, why were the ashes of the offerings not also sanctified?
It seems that Rashi differs from Sforno and Nachmanides in his basic understanding of the challenge imposed by Moshe. Sforno and Nachmanides seem to propose a straightforward and obvious interpretation. Aharon’s opponents believed that their authority of offer sacrifices was no less than his own. Moshe suggested that this thesis be put to a test. Let them present their own offerings. If their offerings are accepted, then their thesis will be proven. If their offerings are rejected, their thesis will be disproved. Their offerings were rejected. This disproved their claims and indicated that their offerings were not avodah.
Rashi rejects this understanding. His understanding of the test is somewhat more abstract and requires an illustration: A drug manufacturer wishes to test a new medication for some disease. He assembles a group of volunteers to participate in a test of the drug’s efficacy. All members of the group suffer from the complaint the drug is designed to treat. Some members of the group receive the medication. Other members of the group receive a placebo. The members of the group that receive the placebo experience some minor improvement in their conditions. However, the members of the group that receive the medication experience marked improvement in their conditions. Which members of this group participated in the test of the new medication? It would be incorrect to say that only the individuals who received the proposed medication participated. Even those who received the placebo participated. Without the administration of the placebo the test would be meaningless.
Rashi seems to propose a similar interpretation for Moshe’s challenge. The challenge was designed to affirm Aharon’s unique position and authority. This could not be accomplished through Aharon alone offering a sacrifice. In order for the demonstration to have meaning, Aharon’s offering needed to be accompanied by the offerings of other individuals. If Aharon’s offering would be accepted and theirs rejected, then Aharon’s claim to the priesthood would be established.
According to this understanding of the test, all of the individuals who offered incense participated in Aharon’s offering. Their participation affirmed the unique status of Aharon and his offering. Certainly, this was only accomplished through the rejection of their incense. However, the designation of their censers for use in this test was effective in conferring sanctity. These censers were designated for use in a single sacrificial service designed to affirm Aharon’s status.
In other words, according to Sforno and Nachmanides, each person who participated in the test offered his own sacrifice. Of all of these sacrifices, one was accepted – Aharon’s – and the remainders were rejected. According to Rashi, all of these individuals participated in a single service. Aharon’s service was only significant because of, and through, the participation of the others. Therefore, their censers which they designated for use in this service were sanctified through this designation. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 17:2.  Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 17:3.  Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 17:2.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 17:2.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 17:2.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 5:22.