The Incense Challenge
Yeshivat Har Etzion
This parasha series is dedicated
in memory of Michael Jotkowitz, z"l.
memory of Ephraim (Arpad) ben Yeshayahu ve Rachel Kaufman z"l in honour of
his yahrzeit 26 Sivan.
Dedicated by his son Moishe Yeshayahu.
tov to Rav Assaf and Leora Bednarsh upon the brit of their son Matityahu.
May they be zocheh to raise him le-Torah, le-chuppa, u-le-maasim tovim.
The Incense Challenge
Rav Chanoch Waxman
The rebellion of Korach opens on a dramatic note. Together with his allies Datan and Aviram, as well as 250 "princes of the assembly," Korach confronts Moshe and Aharon with a harsh and provocative accusation.
You take too much for yourselves (rav lachem), for all the congregation is holy, each and every one, and why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of the Lord? (16:3)
In response to the claim of Korach and his assembly, and apparently picking up on Korach's insistence that all are "holy," Moshe interprets the challenge as primarily cultic in nature, as being about service in the sanctuary and Aharon's role as High Priest. Consequently, Moshe attempts to assuage Korach's pride, and reminds him that as a Levite, he too has a role in the service that takes place in the Mishkan (16:8-9). Simultaneously, he chides Korach, reprimanding him for also desiring priesthood and conspiring against Aharon. (16:8-11).
In addition, right before Moshe's attempt at reconciliation, he proposes a test, a way to determine who in fact is holy and who in fact is not. Like the subsequent negotiation (16:8-11), the test indicates that Moshe views the nascent rebellion as focused upon service in the Mishkan. In fact, he views it as a power grab not just for priesthood, but for the singular role of High Priest. Proclaiming that God will make known "who is his and who is holy" (16:5), Moshe suggests that each of the members of Korach's assembly take a firepan, and place fire and incense in them "in front of the Lord" (16:7). In Moshe's words, "The one that is chosen by God, he is the holy one" (16:7). Only one can be chosen, for the entire conflict is really about the role of High Priest.
While the office of High Priest may well be Korach's goal, it seems difficult to imagine that the other members of Korach's assembly, the 250 Israelite princes, also possess such lofty ambitions. After all, there are 250 of them. As Moshe's words remind us, High Priest is a one man job. For that matter, even standard priesthood seems a bit of a stretch. Until now, the sanctuary has made do with but a handful of priests, Aharon and sons. Could there really be enough work to accommodate another 250? And what about all those who would wish to sign up for sanctuary work upon the rebellion's success?
While understanding the original agenda of the Israelite members of Korach's rebellion may seem slightly problematic, tracking their motivation throughout the remainder of the story seems far more difficult. A careful look at the test proposed by Moshe, and which the 250 rebels seem game for, should help clarify the point.
As mentioned, Moshe prescribes an incense challenge. The exact terms of the challenge include "taking a firepan" (kechu lachem machtot), "putting fire" (u-tenu bahen eish), and "placing incense upon" (ve-simu aleihen ketoret) (16:6-7). These terms should remind us of the Nadav and Avihu narrative and their death. On the day of the Mishkan's inauguration, Nadav and Avihu met their tragic end. In recounting the events, the Torah teaches us that Nadav and Avihu "took each man his firepan" (vayikchu ish machtato), that "they put in them fire" (vayitnu bahen eish), and that "they placed upon it incense" (vayasimu alav ketoret) (Vayikra 10:1). The actions of Nadav and Avihu also involved the threefold process of "taking a firepan," "putting fire," and "placing incense upon."
Moreover, Moshe phrases his challenge with two key words. In introducing the test, Moshe claims that God will make known who is "holy," and in a strange locution, twice states that God will "bring close" the chosen one (16:5). In doing so, Moshe utilizes the stem k.r.v. meaning close, and which also comprises the root of the word korban, meaning sacrifice. It is in fact conjugated in the two usages here as ve-hikriv, or yakriv, conjugations normally associated with a sacrificial context. Strikingly, both these terms, "holy" and "close," also appear in the Nadav and Avihu narrative. The unauthorized offering of incense is described by the Torah as "vaykrivu lifnei Hashem," and they offered before the Lord (10:1). As for the term "holy," in the aftermath of the incident, Moshe utilizes it in conjunction with the term "close," telling Aharon that "bikrovai ekadeish - I will be hallowed with those who come close to me" (10:3). This latter phrase is notoriously difficult. According to the Ramban (10:3), Moshe informed Aharon that God had decided to sanctify and protect His holy place at all cost. Alternatively, most commentaries maintain that Moshe told Aharon that Nadav and Avihu have in some sense become sacrifices, that they are the ones close to God and have in some way sanctified his name in dying (Rashi, Ibn Ezra 10:3). Either way, the overlap between the death of Nadav and Avihu and the ketoret challenge offered to the assembly of Korach is readily apparent.
Finally, as this were not enough, in a third parallel between the two stories, Moshe informs Korach's assembly that the test will take place "before the Lord" (16:7). But this is the exact same place that Nadav and Avihu brought their incense, they "offered before the Lord" (10:1).
In sum, by making the threefold reference to "firepan," "putting fire" and "placing incense" Moshe injects the death of Nadav and Avihu into his conversation with Korach and his assembly. By utilizing the terms "kadosh" and "yakriv," Moshe echoes his own statement to Aharon describing the death of his sons, and offers a thinly veiled hint that the same exact fate awaits the members of Korach's congregation. By referring to the setting of "before the Lord," he makes it almost obvious.
In point of fact, as the narrative progresses, the implicit hint becomes ever more explicit. Until now we have dealt with Moshe's original proposal of the incense challenge (16:5-7). Following Moshe's unsuccessful attempts at dialogue with the leaders of the rebellion (16:8-15), the narrative returns to the looming challenge and Moshe recapitulates his instructions (16:16). Using the phrase "each man his firepan" three times, Moshe informs the assembly of Korach that they should "offer in front of the Lord" the next day. But of course, this is the exact terminology utilized by the Torah to describe the actions of Nadav and Avihu. Vayikra 10:1-2 teaches that Nadav and Avihu took "each man his firepan" (10:1), and they "offered in front of the Lord" (10:2).
While we might well expect the members of Korach's assembly to get the point and retreat in the face of looming disaster, the very next verse reports the accomplishment of Moshe's instructions. In a return to the three primary markers of the Nadav and Avihu narrative (10:1-3), the Torah informs us that the members of Korach's assembly "took each his firepan," "put fire" and "placed incense" (16:18). Fully prepared, they gathered at the door of the Tent of Meeting.
Of course the next step in the parallel and the fate of Korach's assembly is no surprise. In what might be thought of as the completion of the parallel, the story of the rebellion ends with a fire "that goes out from in front of the Lord" (16:35) and consumes the 250 princes, the precise fate that befell Nadav and Avihu (10:2).
For the reader, the fiery end of Korach's followers is not exactly shocking. After all, they are rebels. But more importantly, on the thematic plane, their actions stand in a relation of identity to those of Nadav and Avihu. Just as Nadav and Avihu's actions of "taking a firepan," "putting fire," "placing incense" and "offering before the Lord" are defined by the Torah as "a foreign fire" not commanded by the Lord (Vayikra 10:1) resulting in death by a divine fire (10:2), so too, the Israelite assembly's very same actions are viewed as a violation, a foreign fire not commanded by the Lord. They are punished with consumption by divine fire.
This brings us back to Moshe, the incense challenge and the motivations of Korach's assembly. In offering the challenge, Moshe sends a particular message. In making the claim of holiness, in desiring priesthood, the assembly of Korach runs the risk of meeting the same fate as Nadav and Avihu. An incense offering brought by someone other than Aharon or his sons most certainly comprises a "foreign fire." It is not commanded by God and will most certainly result in death. Moshe in fact offers a choice: desist or face death. In this light, as the narrative develops and Moshe draws the parallel between the incense challenge and the deaths of Nadav and Avihu ever tighter, the persistence of the Israelite princes becomes harder and harder to understand. Do they not remember what happened to Nadav and Avihu? Or do they think that their acts will not be considered a violation, and the challenge is in fact a real test, something other than a sophisticated death threat? Or perhaps they are quite aware of the risk of death, but are nevertheless willing to take their chances?
In sum, in analyzing the motivations of Korach's assembly, we face a dual challenge. In addition to trying to puzzle out their original motivation, we must also try to discern their reasons for persisting with their path, even in the face of death.
Figuring out the motivation of Biblical characters often constitutes a difficult task. The Torah is notoriously sparse on characterization and often provides little of the material necessary for psychological analysis of motivation. This is ever more the case regarding minor characters, especially those like the assembly of Korach, who never speak. They simply persist in a particular course of action. Almost by definition, in these kinds of cases, analysis of motivation is highly speculative.
Despite this caveat, it is worth a try. In addition, despite the claim about lack of evidence, the Torah does place characters and their appearances in particular contexts, and narratives do possess very particular structures. These contexts and structures can often provide clues helpful for analyzing motivation. With this in mind, let us turn our attention to the structure of the Korach narrative (16:1-35).
The overall structure of the rise of the rebellion and its downfall can be mapped as follows:
The confrontation and accusation of rav lachem
Moshe's proposal of a test to determine the "holy"
Moshe's attempt to negotiate/persuade/reconcile Korach and his assembly
Moshe's attempt to negotiate with Datan and Aviram
Preparation for the test, gathering at door of Tent of Meeting
God's threat to destroy the entire community Prayer of Moshe
Gathering at door of tent of Datan, Aviram & Korach Destruction of rebels at both locations
Throughout the narrative, the Torah paints the picture of a unified rebellion led by three key figures, Korach, Datan and Aviram. The story opens with the three leaders "taking," a metaphor for gathering their assembly (16:1). In parallel, in the closing section seven, the text refers numerous times to the "mishkan," or tent of the three leaders, Korach, Datan and Aviram (16:24, 27). God himself refers explicitly in section seven to "mishkan Korach Datan ve-Aviram" (16:24), the unified camp of the three leaders.
Likewise, the description of the demise of the rebellion further unifies the various elements of the story. A moment before their demise, Datan and Aviram emerge from their tents, already termed a "mishkan" (16:24, 27) and stand "at the door of their tents," surrounded by the people. This position precisely parallels the position of Korach and his assembly. They also stand at the door of a tent, the door of the Tent of Meeting (16:18), also know as the Mishkan. They too, are surrounded by the people (16:19).
Furthermore, the two groups at the two tents, both surrounded by the people, meet their demise in synchronous or perhaps even simultaneous fashion. The closing segment of the story (16:23-35), section seven above, is set at the rebel's camp and primarily details the swallowing up into the earth of the rebel's entire camp, the "mishkan" of Korach and his cohorts (16:23-24). After the miraculous descent, in the last verse of the story, the text reverts back to the other mishkan, The Mishkan. In a long delayed resolution to the action of section five (16:16-19), the Torah informs us of the consumption by fire of the 250 princes engaged in offering incense. For some reason, the Torah's report of the fate of the incense bringers is delayed until after the destruction of the rebels' camp. Apparently, the two resolutions are somehow connected. Either they happen simultaneously, or perhaps in some sense the swallowing of the "mishkan" into the earth paves the way for the resolution at the Mishkan.
But there may be more to it than this. In addition to the textual or chronological connection, the Torah may be performing an interesting manipulation of images. While the destruction wrought by fire is often termed "eating" by the Torah (Shemot 22:5, Vayikra 10:2), the use of the term "eating" in our parasha to describe the death of the Israelite assembly (16:35) may pack another dimension. Picking up on the imagery of "the mouth of the earth" and "swallowing" utilized (16:30-32) to depict the demise of the "mishkan" of Korach and his cohorts, the Torah describes the divine fire as "eating" the 250 princes located at the Mishkan (16:35). The two sets of events, those at the "mishkan" and those at the Mishkan are essentially related. In some way, they are the "same."
The key to putting all this together lies in the usage of the term "mishkan." Admittedly, as pointed out by Rashi and the Ibn Ezra (16:1), as a descendant of Kehat, Korach dwelt on the southern flank of the Mishkan. Likewise, Datan and Aviram, members of the Tribe of Reuven also encamped on the south. Yet the term "mishkan" implies far more than just a group of tents planted together by mere coincidence. Just as the Mishkan comprises a focal point and stands at the center of the physical and social world of the Israelite camp, so too, the "mishkan" of Korach and his cohorts comprises a focal point and center. Most probably, the rebels have broken ranks and pitched their tents together in violation of the arrangement of the camp outlined in the beginning of Bamidbar. Their "mishkan" is the social and political center of the rebellion. It is the "big tent" of a new political party.
This brings us back to the "mishkan" Mishkan parallel outlined above and the textual connections between the demise of the two groups. The Mishkan, the true center of the camp, is not the "mishkan"' the camp of Korach and his cohorts. Likewise, the Tent of Meeting is not "their tent" (ohaleihem) (16:27), the term used to describe the tent of Korach, Datan and Aviram.
Reversing this relation is exactly the point of the rebellion and the challenge to Moshe and Aharon. Upon the success of the rebellion, the Mishkan will take on the character of the "mishkan" of Korach, Datan and Aviram. Upon the success of the rebellion, The Tent of Meeting will take on the character of "their tent" (ohaleihem).
As such, the action at the Mishkan is in some sense contingent upon the action at the tent of Korach. Only after the main focus and cause of the rebellion has been quashed does the Torah return to the fate of the 250 takers of the incense challenge. They are more the result, a kind of symptom of the actual rebellion. Consequently, on the textual and literary plane, their demise must wait for the demise of the vital center of the rebellion.
The interconnection of the events at the two tents and the dependence of the events at the Miskan on the quashing of the rebel center should make us realize that Datan and Aviram, the two primary rebel characters in section seven, the story of the "mishkan," are in fact central to the entire rebellion. This in fact is a conclusion that Moshe himself reaches as the narrative progresses.
As mentioned earlier, and as mapped on the chart above, in response to the rebels' challenge of "rav lachem" (16:1), Moshe proposes a counter challenge, the incense test. Immediately afterwards, in what we termed sections three and four above, Moshe attempts negotiations with Korach (16:8-11) and then Datan and Aviram (16:12-15). While perhaps indicative of a divide and conquer strategy, this most probably reflects Moshe's working hypothesis that the different groups of rebels possess different agendas and interests. While Korach is interested in priesthood or even the High Priesthood, the other leaders are probably interested in something else all together.
Yet immediately after his fruitless dialogue with Datan and Aviram (16:12-14), Moshe turns to God in supplication and requests that God "have no regard for their offering" (16:15). Suddenly, Moshe realizes that he faces far more than just a cultic conflict. In fact, he realizes that it is the agenda of Datan and Aviram that lies behind the actions of the 250 Israelite princes who have consented to the incense challenge. The challenge of rav lachem was in fact issued in the plural; it is a challenge to the priestly leadership of Aharon and the personal leadership of Moshe. Moshe too now realizes that the happenings at the Tent of Meeting are integrally connected with the political plotting in the tents of Korach, Datan and Aviram. But what exactly was the agenda of Datan and Aviram?
In fact, this is not particularly difficult. At near the midpoint of the narrative, in section four of our seven stage story, Datan and Aviram respond to Moshe's summons by stating the following.
We will not go up. Isn't it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert, but you make yourself a prince over us? But you have not brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you gouge out the eyes of men? We will not go up. (16:12-14)
Datan and Aviram refer to the fact that Moshe has failed to bring them to "a land flowing with milk and honey." In doing so, they reference a familiar term for the promised land. In revealing himself to Moshe at the burning bush, God commanded Moshe to inform the Children of Israel that he was going take them up from Egypt to the "place of the Canaanites, the Chiti etc.," to "a land flowing with milk and honey" (Shemot 3:17). Moshe's political career and relationship with the Children of Israel begins with this phrase.
This key term surfaces again at
another crucial juncture in Moshe's career as leader, in the incident of the
spies. The spies agree that the land
they have scouted is indeed a "land flowing with milk and honey"
(13:27). But the second attribute of the
land identified by God as the destination constitutes a problem. It is currently the place of the assorted
Canaanite tribes. In clear contradiction
to the divine political plan presented by Moshe to the people back in
In referencing this term, Datan and Aviram place the blame for the failure to arrive in a land flowing with milk and honey, the lack of a bountiful inheritance of fields and vineyards, directly at Moshe's doorstep. Rather than the result of the spies' contradiction of God, the people's complaints or divine wrath, the failure is all Moshe's fault. Moreover, by referring to "a land flowing with milk and honey" without any other modifiers such as "the land of the Canaanite" or "the land promised to the forefathers," Datan and Aviram imply that any land that flows with milk and honey would have sufficed. A proper leader would have drawn such conclusions in response to the report of the spies. If the Canaanites are too mighty, let us find another land that flows with milk and honey, one that we can conquer. Dying in the desert is not a political program.
In fact, Datan and Aviram imply even
more. In rendering the
stock complaint of "Why have you brought us up (he'elitanu) from
While Datan and Aviram accuse Moshe of despotism, of making himself a prince (16:13) and of wanting to "gouge out the eyes" of those who oppose him (16:14), of taking to much power for himself and his family, of rav lachem (16:3), their words display their true agenda. In complaining that Moshe has brought them out of a land of milk and honey "to kill them in the desert" (16:13), Datan and Aviram state their real agenda. Dying in the desert is not a political program.
Let us return to the assembly of
Korach, the 250 princes of
While we can never know the answer to these questions, the structure of the rebellion narrative reminds us that these questions must be raised. The goings on in and at the "mishkan" of Datan and Aviram, the claims of Datan and Aviram and perhaps even the philosophy of Datan and Aviram constitute key elements of the rebellion.
This point can also be grasped by apprehending the structure of Sefer Bamidbar. From a chronological and thematic perspective, the book can be thought of as consisting of four parts. The breakdown runs as follows:
Arrangement of the camp, preparations for travel, relevant halakhot
The first journey, Midbar Paran narrative, sin of spies, relevant halakhot
Rebellion of Korach, its aftermath, relevant halakhot
The fortieth year leadership transition, battles, preparation for entering the land etc.
While parts one and two take place during the second year in the desert, part four of the book picks up in the fortieth year in the desert. In fact, the events of the thirty-eight year interlude, the "year per day" that God promises as punishment to the Children of Israel (14:34), constitute a kind of missing history. They are lost years, the history of a lost generation forever hidden from our view. The story of Korach and his rebellion, part three of the Book of Bamidbar constitutes a notable exception to this rule. It is in fact the only narrative of those years reported in the Torah.
When and where did the events take place? The Torah gives us neither a time nor a place. The answer is sometime, somewhere. Sometime and somewhere in the vast emptiness of time and space that comprises a forty years journey to nowhere. It happens sometime and somewhere after the sin of the spies and the awful decree of God.
The point is that the story of the rebellion and the motivation of the Israelite princes who joined Korach's assembly cannot be analyzed without this textual, chronological and existential context. The decree of forty years wandering in the desert and the decree of an entire generation's death are not normal national programs. They constitute unique circumstances, more than capable of generating unique psychological, existential and political dynamics. Even if the 250 didn't fully share Datan and Aviram's motivation and program, the objective context cannot be ignored.
To close the circle, let us engage
in some speculation. While doing so is
hazardous, it is often enjoyable. Did
the Israelite princes regret leaving
But if so, we are back to square one. Why did they persist? On some level, the answer can be stated in one word: despair. Despair is a powerful psychological phenomenon. Under its influence, we can suppress that which we truly know and imagine ourselves to know other things all together. How hard would it be to forget, ignore or partially repress the death of Nadav and Avihu? Under the influence of despair, how hard would it be to engage in pseudo logic and reasoning? While God had not commanded Nadav and Avihu's offering and it was truly "a foreign fire," the incense test constitutes a different story all together. It is commanded by Moshe and will surely not result in divine wrath. Forgetting for the moment that they have lost faith in Moshe and his leadership, the princes rationalized that the test is proposed by Moshe himself, the one who speaks for God. Where despair reigns, logic and consistency cannot expect to find a foothold.
Moreover, under the influence of despair, how hard would it be to engage in false hope? How hard would it be to imagine, if just for a minute, that maybe Korach, Datan and Aviram are right? Maybe Moshe has altered God's message just a little bit. Maybe he is not really the right leader, maybe the political program can be altered, and maybe others also deserve a role in the sanctuary service. Under the influence of despair, all is possible.
But there is more to it than is. In addition to the dynamics of despair, suppression, rationalization and imaginary thinking outlined until this point, we can also identify another possible dynamic, or at least another contributing element to the processes outlined above.
In confronting Moshe and Aharon,
Korach and his cohorts insist that "the entire congregation is holy and
the Lord is among them" (16:3).
While the issue of Moshe and Aharon's monopoly on leadership is raised,
the claim of holiness constitutes the crucial ideological claim of the assembly. The holiness and sanctity of each member of
Moshe offers a test that is in fact
attuned to this central claim, the ketoret challenge. But while offering the "test,"
Moshe sends a message. Each and every
individual member of
As I have argued, the Israelite
princes most probably catch the reference, they get the message. Yet driven by a need to believe in their own
holiness, a deep desire to feel that God is amidst them and with them, they
persist in their quixotic and self-defeating quest. If God is with them and they are indeed holy,
they should emerge unscathed from the test.
If God is with them and they are indeed holy, Moshe is incorrect, and there
is no need for an elite cast of priests.
Each and every member of
In sum, in light of the decree to die in the desert, the mundane material world holds scant attraction. The regular every day world of action, progress, motion, development and hope for the future has been rendered mute and meaningless. They are fated to die in the desert. Yet the realm of the divine, of transcendence and holiness, of the Mishkan, still exists. In this realm the Israelites can progress, ascend and come in contact with the divine. In point of fact, the princes are driven by their own need, desire and hope for holiness. The underlying dynamic of the rebel's story is the human need for meaning and holiness.
To close, reading the motivation of
the Israelite princes as stemming from a different kind of hope, the need for
meaning and holiness, sheds new light on the relationship between the rebellion
and the story of the spies. In
attributing all to Moshe, and rejecting all possibility of the
But the spies never doubted Moshe or
God in this way. The sin of these
The spies perceive themselves as no
more than minute beings, not even human in comparison to the "giants"
that inhabit the land. Moreover, the gap
is even greater than that between men of stature and minute insects. The inhabitants of the land are the legendary
nefilim (14:33), the quasi divine beings mentioned in Bereishit
6:1-4, the offspring of the "sons of God" (6:4). The root of the sin of the spies, the root of
their fears, lies in their self-perception.
They are no more than insects, less than fully human. They are not holy, God is not amidst them,
and there is no way he will help them in their battle against the mighty
From this perspective, the princes
of the assembly, the assembly of Korach, proclaim exactly the opposite. In a grandiose reversal of the sin of the
spies, the assembly claims that all are holy and God is amidst them. They are not insects, but rather a kind of
divine being. God is with them and
amidst them. God would welcome the
entrance of each and every member of
In the final analysis, it is possible to claim that the Israelite princes stand on the opposite end of the spectrum from both Datan and Aviram and the spies. Unlike Datan and Aviram, they do not doubt the original divine plan, nor reject the divine decree to wait for the rise of a new generation and resumption of the journey. Unlike the spies, they do not doubt their own self worth, their worthiness, nor God's presence with them. In this sense, they serve to correct the underlying dynamic of the sin of the spies.
Their error consists of going too
far, of claiming too much for themselves.
In the language of the parasha, they commit their own sin of
"rav lachem" (16:3, 7).
They exaggerate their own self worth and holiness. In truth, every member of
1) The shiur above follows the Ramban's position on the chronology and explanation of the rebellion. See the latter part of the Ramban's comment to 16:1. In contrast see Ibn Ezra 16:1 (cited by the Ramban). Read 17:6-26. Evaluate the Ibn Ezra's proof from this parasha.
2) Reread 16:1-3. Now see Shemot 13:2 and 19:22. See the Ramban and the Ibn Ezra again. Evaluate the evidence for the claim that the 250 princes are all first born. Explain how this claim resolves a central problem discussed in the shiur above. Now see Rashi 16:3 and 15:40-41. Also see Shemot 19:6. Think again about the meaning of 16:3.
3) The Ramban (16:1, 14:17) claims that Moshe's "not praying" after the sin of the spies helped pave the way for the rebellion. Read Bamidbar 14:1-23. Compare to Shemot 32:9-14 and Shemot 34:5-9. Evaluate the Ramban's statement.
4) Reread 16:1-4. See Rashi 16:4. Now see 14:1-6. Can Rashi's claim be moved further back? Now see 16:20-22 and the Ibn Ezra 16:4 and 16:22. What is the alternative to Rashi? Look carefully at the language of 16:22. What kind of prayer is this?