The showdown between Korach and Moshe reaches its climax with the “ketoret standoff.” Moshe suggests that the disagreement be settled by everyone offering incense to Hashem. So Aharon, Korach and 250 Korach-followers offer incense on fire pans. In response, Hashem shows His displeasure with the 250 men by sending a fire to consume them (16:35).
The next chapter opens with God commanding Moshe to tell his nephew Elazar HaKohen to collect the firepans that were utilized by those 250 men and fashion them into a covering for the altar, “because they have become holy.” (17:2) These pans were used in a rebellion against Aharon and Moshe- why should they be considered holy and worthy of being kept?
Rashi suggests that the pans became holy when the 250 men used them to offer incense to Hashem. Ramban questions this theory: after all, this was not a sanctioned offering – this was done as an expression of rebellion against Moshe! Instead, the Ramban suggests that the pans became holy because they were utilized as a vehicle through which G-d was ultimately sanctified. They became a symbol of the Divine choice of Moshe’s and Aharon’s leadership. From the Ramban we learn that sometimes people or situations can be used as messengers of Kiddush Hashem even if they have no idea or don’t mean to.
The fact that these firepans were fashioned into a cover for the altar is significant. It was on the mizbeach that a person would offer a sacrifice, a ritual that demonstrates humility, perhaps even a negation of self before the will of God. The cover on the altar is a cautionary note that warns people of how easily we can fool ourselves into believing in the righteousness of our cause. These 250 men were willing to die for the cause that they allowed themselves to believe whole-heartedly.
It’s easy to allow ego, ulterior motives or even laziness to get in the way of what’s really important. The fire pans protecting the mizbeach served as that warning – then as well as now.