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Two Minutes of Torah: Korach - Memorializing the sacred and the profane

When I began reading The Hunger Games I understood what all the hype was about. I raced through the three installments of the series and was left wanting more. The basic premise of the trilogy is that in a dystopian future the world is divided into 12 Districts, kept in a subservient situation by an entity known as The Capital. Annually the Hunger Games are held with 2 tributes (teenagers) from each district fighting in a 24-way fight to the death, with only one survivor. These Games are a punishment and an annual reminder to the Districts of the unsuccessful war they waged against the Capital, forcing them to sacrifice two of their children to this barbaric spectacle.

The Hunger Games may therefore be classified as a cautionary memorial; very specifically intended as a warning about the repercussions of rebellion. It is interesting to consider what message memorials are intended to convey.

In this week’s Torah portion a rather strange memorial is commanded by God, after the rebellion of Korach and his followers against Moses and Aaron. As a test of the validity of their claims, censers with incense were to be brought before God, Who would then choose one, declaring that person holy (Numbers 16:6-7). In the event there were 250 censers from the followers of Korach and one from Aaron (Numbers 16:17-18). Korach and his men were swallowed up by the earth (Numbers 16:31-32) and ‘a fire went out from Adonai and consumed the 250 men who offered incense’ (Numbers 16:35).

This would appear to have been the end of the rebellion, but then God commanded Moses to instruct Elazar to retrieve the censers from the fire, because they were holy. And to make them into ‘hammered plates for a covering of the altar; for they offered them before Adonai, therefore they are holy’ (Numbers 17:3). Lest there be any doubt of the message intended, the text continues, that it should be ‘a memorial to the people of Israel, that no stranger, who is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to offer incense before Adonai’ (Numbers 17:5). In this way, just like the fictional Hunger Games, it was intended as a cautionary memorial.

Although God may have intended one message for the memorial, there is a secondary implicit lesson. God suggests that despite the censers being used to challenge Moses’ authority, they remained holy. For us, this is a reminder that things which are holy, with a sacred function, can be subverted and used for profane purposes. The significance of the item remains, as with these censers, despite the fact that they were used inappropriately. How often in our society today do people take that which is holy, such as sacred texts and teachings, subverting their purpose to promote their own end?

This memorial at the altar warns against offering incense, but it also reminds us that we should challenge those who take that which is holy and use it for profane purposes. It calls us to rescue the censers of our modern world from those who would seek to use them inappropriately; finding ways to rededicate them to God.

And if you want to listen to this Two Minutes of Torah: [audio]

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