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Holy Sinners

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Lift up … the offering-pans of these mortal sinners, and beat them into sheets with which to plate the altar; for they have been offered to G-d, and have become sanctified.

Numbers 17:2-3

The sixteenth chapter of Numbers relates the story of Korach’s challenge to the authority of Moses and the priesthood of Aaron. Korach, joined by 250 of the spiritual elite of Israel, rebelled against the granting of the kehunah—the privilege of serving G-d in the Holy Temple—to Aaron and his descendants. They, too, desired the opportunity for such communion with G-d, and demanded of Moses that he admit them into the kehunah.

Their spiritual mutiny ended in tragedy. To prove their worthiness for the priesthood, these men made an offering of ketoret (incense) to G-d—the holiest and most potent of divine services, whose performance is strictly limited to kohanim at specially appointed times in the sacred intimacy of the Sanctuary. “A fire issued forth from G-d and consumed the two hundred and fifty offerers of the ketoret.”[1]

Yet G-d instructed that the copper pans in which they made their forbidden offering should be hammered into a covering for the altar. These pans have been sanctified, said G-d to Moses; their very metal has been hallowed by an act which, though sinful and severely punished, was motivated by a holy desire—a desire to come close to Me.

The copper plating of the altar holds an eternal lesson: if such is the divine regard for a piece of inanimate metal, certainly no human being is irredeemable. For no matter how deleterious his deeds, they hide a desire and striving, intrinsic to every creature of G-d, for the goodness and perfection of the divine.

Based on the Rebbe’s words to a group of high school students, circa 1955[2]

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.


[1]. Numbers 16:35.

[2]. Recounted by Rabbi Zvi Meir Steinmetz, the teacher who brought these students to their meeting with the Rebbe.

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