So much of the journey of transitions has to do with re-evaluating oneself, reflecting on who we've become, and what of ourselves we take on the next step of the journey. Every step we take into the future is an opportunity to decide what to take with us, and what to leave behind, as if we had a suitcase full of our past, and we are packing and repacking it at major moments in our lives.
In Numbers 17, we read about one of the results of the Korach rebellion. Back in Chapter 16, Korach challenges Moses' authority and it doesn't end well for him and his followers. Moses told the rebels that they were to show up the next day, each with their firepans, and see whom God would choose as leaders. Moses told them all that if something dramatic happened, like the earth opening up and swallowing people whole, well then, that would be a big hint as to who should be acknowledged as the leader. And indeed, the next day, all of Korach's 250 followers were swallowed up into the earth, there was a big fire, and the rebels died, leaving their unholy firepans behind.
What happened next says a lot to the idea of what goes into making a holy community. Moses is told:
"Order Eleazar son of Aaron the priest to remove the fire pans—for they have become sacred—from among the charred remains; and scatter the coals abroad. [Remove] the fire pans of those who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and let them be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar - for once they have been used for offering to the Lord, they have become sacred (Lev. 17:2-3)
This is astonishing, when you think about it. How did the rebels' firepans suddenly become sacred? We read so often in Leviticus that one can become contaminated by coming into contact with tamei (impure) items that make us momentarily tamei. So why aren't these firepans tamei, and wouldn't they contaminate anything they touch, like maybe, well—the altar of the Tabernacle? How could things so connected to destruction become part of the life-sustaining center of the community? Rashi (12th c France) says, the firepans were turned to a different purpose, that of service vessels, so they could no longer be used for anything else. The people took what was harmful and made it useful.
What became incorporated into the future of the community works for our individual futures, too, particularly at moments of transition. Our past deeds, perhaps especially the ones in which the risks we took didn't end well, are not contaminated objects to be left behind. They made us who we are. They are important, not to dwell on, but rather to hammer and mold into something that we carry with us and can use in positive ways. By incorporating them into our lives, our futures, our life-sustaining centers, we acknowledge the choices made in our past, and build upon them for our future. Like the firepans of Korach's followers, hammered into the very vessels that receive offerings to God, our own misdeeds are integrated with the rest of our actions, packed up into our life suitcases, not as dead weight, but as transformative moments.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.