Plates of Brass
Part of the rebellion of Korach involved 250 men whom Moshe commanded to offer incense in fire pans. They appeared at the Mishkan, and after the death of Korach's followers:
...fire emerged from God and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who had offered the incense. (Bamidbar 16:35)
Their fire pans, however, were not discarded, but were demanded for a most unusual purpose: The fire pans of those who sinned against their souls - make them into beaten plates, a cover for the altar... (Ibid. 17:3)
Before this incident, the altar was a hollow frame. Whenever klal Yisrael encamped, they filled the hollow with earth and offered the animals upon it. But now the outside surface of the whole altar was covered with thin brass plating, and it was upon this that the offerings were brought.
This is intriguing. Firstly, how was it permissible to manufacture a mitzvah item (the surface of the altar) from the product of a sin? Secondly, why had it been considered adequate to sacrifice on plain earth up until this stage in Yisrael's history, but now brass plating was required? It is clear that deep reasoning lies behind this extraordinary command. Let us try to understand it.
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We will begin by noting that the trial in which the 250 men were required to participate demanded brass fire pans rather than the usual gold, or any other material. Indeed, we find that incense was always offered on gold utensils in the Mishkan. The altar for incense was made from gold, and on Yom Kippur the kohen gadol entered the Holy of Holies bearing a pan of gold. Even the glowing coals used to burn the daily incense were brought to its altar in a gold pan.
The three metals used in the construction of the Mishkan - gold, silver, and brass - each has a specific metaphysical meaning. Gold symbolizes fear, silver symbolizes love, and brass, strength of character. Brass always indicates strength and power, as we see in the following contexts:
Behold, I have made you today as a fortified city, an iron pillar and walls of brass against the whole land... (Yirmeyahu 1:18)
For I know that you are obdurate; your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass. (Yeshayahu 48:4)
In each of these cases, brass is used to symbolize strength of conviction, the ability to remain firm against opposition. Of course, this can manifest itself in a positive sense, as indicated by the "walls of brass" of Yirmeyahu or in a negative sense, as in the "brass forehead" of Yeshayahu.
This characteristic may well be the most powerful of all traits. In its positive manifestation, it is compared to Yaakov, the choicest of the Avos:
Gold is Avraham, silver is Yitzchak, and brass is Yaakov. (Shemos Rabbah 49:2)
When this character trait is carefully utilized, it is most useful and manifests itself as determination in the face of adversity to maintain one's position. Left unchecked, however, the brass will become obduracy, inflexibility, and downright brazenness. Yaakov manifested the positive side of this trait, maintaining his position against Eisav and Lavan in the face of much opposition. Korach, his descendant, also demonstrated this with his demand for a formal position within the hierarchy of the leadership of klal Yisrael. Thus, in this case alone, the fire pans were made of brass, as the command to bring the incense was a test to determine if the offerers' "brass" trait was within reasonable bounds or had become arrogance.
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MAKING A MITZVAH FROM A SIN
It is now easier for us to justify manufacturing the brass plates from an object previously used for sin. We have demonstrated that the characteristic displayed by Korach was not bad at its root - indeed, it was largely evident in the life of Yaakov - but merely misused by him. The ability to stand up for one's principles was twisted by Korach and his followers into an arrogant, self-seeking mission. But it would be wrong to pretend that there was no good at all inherent in their rebellion. This is symbolized by the order of events after the men died:
He should lift up the fire pans from the conflagration and throw away the fire, for they have been sanctified. The fire pans of those who sinned against their souls - make them into beaten plates, a cover for the altar... (Baidbar 17:2-3)
The fire which was thrown away symbolized the excess to which the men had subjected their "brass" trait. They had heated themselves into a frenzy of arrogance to stand against Moshe, and so after their deaths, the fire was poured away. This left the empty fire pans, which symbolized the good aspect of their characters. Since mitzvos and sins do not cancel each other, each of these were treated separately. As such, the men were punished for their arrogance, but deserved a reward for the basic good trait which had prompted their rebellion in the first place. Thus the good element, represented by the fire pans, was used for a great mitzvah - as a surface for the altar.
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EARTH AND BRASS
At the beginning of this essay, we noted that until the rebellion of Korach offerings were brought directly on the earth filling of the altar, but afterwards this earth was covered by the brass plating. We have mentioned before that God showed all of the offerings to Avraham Avinu in a vision. It is also familiar to us that the basic point of offering animals on the altar was to express one's humility and contrition before God, as the verse tells us:
The offerings to God are a broken spirit; a broken and crushed heart God will not despise. (Tehillim 51:19)
Avraham expressed this contrition beautifully - he was a man of great humility. This is why God showed him all of the offerings, rather than to Yitzchak or Yaakov. He genuinely rejected his self-worth, as we see in the oft-quoted verse:
I am but dust and ashes. (Bereishis 18:27)
This feeling pervaded early Jewish history, and thus the offerings, which themselves symbolized contrition, were offered on plain earth in the middle of the altar.
This position altered after the rebellion of Korach. As we have seen, there was a resurgence of the strength of character symbolized by brass and exemplified by Yaakov Avinu. Thus from that time onwards, it was appropriate to offer animals on the brass plating to acknowledge the change of mood among the people. Since overall this character trait is desirable, the fire pans of the instigators were set upon the altar as an everlasting memorial. Let us hope that klal Yisrael internalized the message expressed by the final verse of the portion dealing with this subject:
A memorial for the Children of Yisrael: so that no strange man who is not from the seed of Aharon should draw near to offer incense before God. He shall not be like Korach and his assembly...