Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Introduction to Parashat
Yeshivat Har Etzion
AND AHARON – MURDERERS?
Rabbi Yaakov Beasley
week, we read in Parashat Shelach how the Jewish people (Benei
Yisrael) stagger from their colossal error with the Spies to floundering in
the desert for forty years.
However, despite the setback, they remain intact: the Camp (Machaneh) functions as
it has before, with the nation's tents arranged in an orderly formation,
surrounding the Camp of the Levites, who in turn surround the Mishkan
(Tabernacle). As opposed to the
aftermath of the Golden Calf episode, when the dust settles from the Sin of the
Spies, the Divine Presence still hovers over the Machaneh, providing
protection, nourishment, and reassurance that the relationship between God and
His nation remains unbroken. If the
purpose of Sefer Bamidbar is to transform the unruly mob of freed slaves
into a nation worthy of bearing the name "Benei Yisrael," then the Sin of
the Spies only delays its realization.
Enter Korach ben Yitzhar, whose rebellion against Aharon and Moshe
threatens to undermine this goal totally.
with his position in life, Korach leads a campaign against Moshe's allegedly
nepotistic behavior. Allying
himself with Moshe's longstanding (Nedarim 64b) personal adversaries,
Datan and Aviram, and assembling 250 community leaders, they engage Moshe and
Aharon in a populist debate over the very nature of the Jewish nation. At stake in the dispute is the very
thesis of Sefer Bamidbar.
Will the Jewish nation continue with the carefully-demarcated, precise
hierarchical organization of the nation that occupies the narrative bulk of Sefer Bamidbar's opening chapters,
assigning specific roles to the kohanim (priests) and Levites by
family? Alternatively, will Korach
triumph with his enticing and egalitarian vision that "the entire congregation
is holy" (Bamidbar 16:3) and is therefore suitable to serve in the Mishkan?
in his efforts to establish channels of communication with the rebels, Moshe
responds to Korach's challenge by arranging an experiment whereby Aharon, Korach
and the 250 men will offer incense in the Mishkan, with God demonstrating His
choice. The next morning, the 250
men, censers in hand, are consumed by a Divine Fire, while the earth opens to
swallow Datan and Aviram, their families and their followers alive. What is the nation's reaction to the
outcome of this contest, with God explicitly reinforcing the leadership of Moshe
and Aharon? They respond with
nothing less than the accusation of murder (17:6): "You have killed the nation
KILLED GOD'S NATION?
are we to understand this bewildering outburst? Surely, the appearance of the Divine
Fire should have quenched any lingering doubts about the legitimacy of Moshe's
leadership! Indeed, God punishes
the people with a severe plague for this accusation, and He must perform yet
another miracle, causing Aharon's staff to bloom, in order to "assuage from upon
Me the complaints of Benei Yisrael, which they lodge against you"
(17:20). The commentators provide
several fascinating explanations of the nation's indictment and what motivates
Ibn Ezra argues that there is no proof from what has occurred that Aharon is
meant to be the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and the tribe of Levi to serve
in the Mishkan, for "You have killed the nation of God!" — those who have
been consumed may have died through Moshe and Aharon's prayers or through some
arcane science known to them.
Ramban, in addition to bringing the Ibn Ezra's approach, explains that the
people feel that Moshe and Aharon challenge the 250 leaders to bring incense on
their own initiative, without God's command. While the earth's swallowing up of
Korach's followers is clearly a divine punishment, the nation feels that the
burning of the 250 is entirely due to Moshe and Aharon's misleading
Ramban also suggests that Moshe and Aharon misunderstand the initial complaint,
leading to the deaths of the 250.
The people never question Aharon's role as Kohen Gadol and
acknowledge that Divine Fire consumes Aharon's offerings. What they desire is the return of the
firstborn to serve in the Mishkan. That the 250 bring incense, the
exclusive province of the kohanim, placing them in competition with
Aharon, is due to Moshe's misunderstanding of the nation's desires.
Chizkuni holds similarly that their accusation derives from their bitterness at
the Levites' replacing the firstborn in the Mishkan. He understands the accusation "You have
killed the nation of God!" as "because of your [replacing the firstborn], they
Seforno's interpretation is also a variant on the Ramban's approach. While the people accept Aharon as Kohen Gadol, they do indeed desire to serve as
kohanim. Therefore, they
believe that an appropriate test would have been the offering of animal
sacrifices, which many kohanim can bring at once; the incense, on the
other hand, is a singular service tied to the tamid offering, brought
every morning and afternoon.
alone among the commentators, the Rashbam does not focus on the specifics of the
test or on the nation's motivations.
Instead, he believes that what upsets the nation is the challenge's
superfluous nature, given the preceding events; their indictment should be
for Datan and Aviram, we admit that they sinned; but the 250, who died in the
same way as Nadav and Avihu — you are the ones who killed them by ordering them
to bring incense!"
the exception of the Rashbam's, these approaches share the idea that at the
heart of the dispute is the issue of who will serve in the Mishkan. While some commentators hold that the
argument is limited to whether the firstborn of each family or the Levites will
serve in the Mishkan (see the Seforno
and Chizkuni, 16:3), others suggest that Korach is suggesting that all Jews are
entitled to serve
(see the Ramban, end of 16:21).
While God's interventions (the earth opening its mouth, the fire, the
plague, and the sign of the staffs) quiet the grumblings, do they address the
fundamental issues raised? After
the miracle of Aharon's blossoming staff, the people add a new complaint
addressed Moshe, saying:
"Behold! We expire, we
perish! All of us perish! Anyone who approaches at all the Mishkan of God will die! Are we doomed to expire?"
DEFINING THE LEVITES AND DEMOCRACY
first glance, "Are we doomed to expire?" seems illogical, if not
disingenuous. No one has been
killed for simply 'approaching' the Mishkan! Only the demand to replace the kohanim or the Levites leads to the
disasters listed earlier. What
leads to the nation's new despair?
mentioned above, despite being hijacked by Korach for his nefarious purposes,
the people have a legitimate complaint regarding their demotion from the Divine
service. At Mount Sinai, everyone
stands equally (with exceptions for Moshe, Aharon and the leaders) around the
mountain; everyone offers sacrifices to God. After the sin of the Golden Calf, the
firstborn and the people as a whole are relegated to camping around the Mishkan, while only the Levites and the
Kohanim can, respectively, serve and bring the offerings. What Sefer Bamidbar outlines as each person's
newly-assigned role can easily deteriorate into a feudalistic caste system where
the Mishkan (and holiness) becomes
the province of a limited few. In
response, God outlines again the responsibilities of the Levites, with subtle
yet striking additions:
God said to Aharon: You, your sons
and your father's house will bear the iniquity of the Mikdash … and [the
Levites] are to safeguard your charge, and the charge of the entire Tent… that
they not die – neither they, nor you!
shall safeguard the charge of the Altar… that there shall be no more wrath
against Benei Yisrael! (18:1, 3, 5)
Korach had impugned Aharon, God had to make [Aharon] the object of all these
warnings… and the Camp of Yisra'el was charged with admonishing the
kohanim and overseeing their performance. (Sifrei #1)
and Moshe assign the Levites their tasks and placement much earlier (1:53) in Sefer Bamidbar. However, the repetition here adds two
important details. Firstly, the
Levites are now presented as not only vulnerable, but responsible for the deadly
consequences of improper service in the Mishkan. Secondly, no longer are the Levites a
buffer between the Jewish nation and the Mishkan, serving as the people's
representatives. Instead, they
became the interface, the conduit that connects the Mishkan to the Machaneh. Through the gifts brought by the nation
at the end of the parasha, Benei Yisra'el (not God) acknowledge
and define their kohanim; yet through these gifts, the land that the
people own becomes blessed. The
Levites, who do not receive a share in the Land, become as dependent upon the
people as the people are upon them for God's blessing.
The idea that Korach may have been 'less than sincere' in his revolution
is already advanced by the Midrash.
According to the Midrash Tanchuma (#5), Korach, in a cynical and
Machiavellian fashion, embraces democratic principles in order to dupe the 250
into offering incense with him:
Moshe warned them, "The man that God chooses, he is the one sanctified"
(16:7) — is that not obvious?
Indeed, Moshe was subtly warning them, "You are 250 men – but while
the one whom God chooses will walk away alive, the rest of you will