Prayer as an act of transformation

Parashat Korach 5781 / פרשת קוֹרַח
Torah Portion: Numbers 16:1-18:32

Jewish worship is supposed to be transformational. People come to services on Shabbat, holy days and on weekdays for many reasons, but they are not always aware that Jewish prayer is an active experience that changes them, whether they want to change or not. If you leave a Friday night service the same as when you entered the synagogue that evening, you didn’t really pray.

At the heart of the Hebrew word for “prayer,” tefilah, is the root pallel, meaning something like “to execute judgment, clarify, and decide.” What is the object of our judgement, clarification or decision-making? We are. Our selves. In fact, the word for “to pray,” l’hitpallel, is reflexive, suggesting that prayer is an act of self-judgment, self-clarification, an act of deciding who we are and where we stand in relation to God, Israel, Torah and the rest of the world. One is inherently changed by virtue of achieving this heightened awareness.

No human being is entirely perfect, but prayer helps us change and improve. Prayer provides us with time and space to look both deep within ourselves and to look far beyond ourselves toward the realm of mystery, Divinity and infinitude to discern how we can become less imperfect. We enter the prayer space with whatever thoughts and feelings we bring — a hodgepodge of concern, gratitude, worry, contentment, despair, joy and sadness — and, if we’ve been intentional and present in our prayer, we leave having taken a step, even if imperceptible, toward putting everything in order.

As a reminder of why we come to pray, our synagogue’s aron kodesh (Holy Ark) is adorned with the symbols of the Twelve Tribes of Israel hammered into sheets of copper. To understand how this beautiful object of ritual art comes to inform our worship, one need only look at Parashat Korach, our Torah reading this week. 

Parashat Korach tells the tragic tale of rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron by the Levite Korach and the Reubenites Dathan, Abiram and On. As Rabbi Charlie Scwhwartz of Hillel International writes in his commentary to Parashat Korach on MyJewishLearning.com, “Parashat Korach is a chaotic mess. Within the 95 verses of this Torah portion are multiple active rebellions accompanied by multiple acts of divine punishment, all intertwined in a confusing and complicated narrative…” In the midst of all the chaos, Moses directs Korach and his followers to appear before God at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, each with an offering of incense in his fire pan. (As custodians of the Tabernacle, the men would each have possessed a fire pan used to gather up the charred remains of sacrifices burnt on the Tabernacle’s altar.) At the moment the rebels gather, God punishes them by consuming them in fire. 

What became of the fire pans, which had been consecrated for service in the Tabernacle? God speaks to Moses, telling him to instruct Eleazar the priest to “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 — and let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel” (Num. 17:3). Then we read that Eleazar “took the copper fire pans” and did as God had bidden.

The Torah specifies that the pans should be “a warning to the people of Israel,” but they serve another purpose as well. Later in the Book of Numbers we find out that “the sons of Korach did not die” (Num. 26:11). In fact, Korach’s descendents go on to compose half a dozen Psalms, one (Psalm 47), which we read before the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and another (Psalm 49) that is traditionally read in a house of mourning. Though Korach may have instigated a deadly rebellion against Moses, Aaron and, by extension, God, his descendants chose a different path. Perhaps they were not rebellious to begin with. No matter, the legacy of Korach’s lineage does not end with his fateful quarrel. Rather, it ends with acts of faith, piety, trust, and celebration of God’s greatness. And so, the copper fire pans that become part of the altar also remind us of the power of teshuvah (return, repentance), the ultimate proof of humanity’s power to transform itself into something better than it has been and is.

Many synagogues incorporate copper into their arks, Torah reading tables, and other ritual objects. By doing so, the copper does more than complement the synagogue’s decor. It stands as a reminder that we are all capable of becoming better than we are, of becoming less imperfect, if you will. We are all capable of adding holiness into the world, just like the descendents of the rebellious Korach. Even more, because we see the copper before us as we pray, it reminds us to use this time of prayer to look within and to look beyond and to begin our transformation in that moment. May we all realize whatever change we seek.

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