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   by Jacob Solomon

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The Israelites said to Moses… “Behold! We perish; we are lost; we are all lost! All who approach closer to the Tabernacle of G-d will die! Will we ever cease perishing? (17:27-28)

This passage presents the following problems:

  1. The words appear to carry the tone of sheer panic – as though there was no escape. Could not the Israelites have avoided the problem by simply not entering areas that were forbidden to them?
  2. The words seem to be out of place at this stage in the story. Following Korach’s unsuccessful rebellion against Moses and Aaron, the Almighty ‘corrected’ the Israelites from the negative influence of Korach and his followers’ in three stages. Firstly, He punished those who did not learn from Korach’s rebellion – namely those who caused dissent amongst the Israelites by blaming Moses and Aaron for their deaths: “You have killed the people of G-d” (17:6). They died through plague. Secondly, He demonstrated to the Israelites that the holy frankincense which killed Korach’s followers could save lives, as well as take lives (17:11-15). Thirdly, He showed that He chose Aaron and his tribe, the Levites, to be the spiritual leaders of the Israelites. He did this in a gentle way: namely that when the stick of the tribe of Levi was placed next to the sticks of all the other tribes, it was the only one which miraculously blossomed and produced almonds (17:16-24). It was after that final event that the Israelites were terrified. What panic-inciting qualities did the miracle of the almonds have?

In relating to this passage, consider the central argument of Korach’s company:

For the whole congregation – every one is holy, and G-d is amongst all of them. Why do you (Moses and Aaron) make yourselves princes over the Congregation of G-d? (16:3).

In other words – democracy! Like many rebels after him, he used this carrot to win public support to plan a take-over. However, the Midrash (Tanchuma: Parashat Korach, 1) implies that Korach had no interest whatsoever in sharing power with others. Korach’s real agenda, says the Midrash, was to become the leader of the people of Kehat – the sub-tribe of Levi which included Moses and Aaron (Ex. 16:18,20), and he was incensed that the position had been given to Elitzafan ben Uziel (3:30). Even though he had a better position on the family tree (Ex. 6:21-22), and thus prima facie a better claim, Elitzafan had been chosen by G-d for this responsibility in clear preference to Korach, through His communication with Moses. Had Korach revealed his true purpose for his rebellion, he would have attracted few followers. People are far too concerned with their own troubles to be interested in someone who, in his own not-so-humble opinion, was passed over for promotion.

The impact of Korach’s rebellion did not end with the miraculous circumstances of his death. It was the first time that Moses’ and Aaron’s authority had come under attack simply because they were there, rather than as a result of sincerely felt, if erroneous, fear or acute disappointment.

The situation was comparable to the following situation. A highly respected and successful Rav of sterling character has been an established Rosh Yeshiva for many years in a world-ranking Torah institution. One Purim, a group of prestigious students get drunk, enter his Beth Hamidrash, and pelt him with eggs and flour. The mess has been cleaned up, the boys concerned have been expelled and ostracized, and the incident has passed into history. Or has it? It may well be the case that even many years later, students will mentally associate him far more readily with the eggs and the flour, than with the Torah he taught them or the great personal deeds he performed. In other words, the incident severely damaged his image and therefore persona as a Rav and Rosh Yeshiva. This weakened any future influence he would have.

Similarly, Korach’s rebellion. The very fact that it took place at all weakened Moses’ credibility in performing G-d’s mission of forming the Israelite Nation. Indeed, the entire assembly of the Israelites did not see Korach and his company as rebels, but as martyrs. They revolted against Moses and Aaron following their deaths: “You have killed the people of G-d”. At that stage, despite the fact that Korach’s company had died through obviously supernatural means, they lost their previous personae and therefore did not have the required prestige to lead the Israelites.

The Almighty, who “creates… their hearts, understands all their deeds” (Psalms 33:15) knew that Moses and Aaron were the sole individuals worthy of being the transmitters of His teachings and values to His people. He had to recreate and demonstrate their authority by communicating directly to the Israelites. He did this in two ways – killing the successor rebels through plague (the harsh way) and giving a gentle, quiet public lesson to all the Israelites though the blossoms and the almonds (the gentle way).

How did this affect the Israelites? No further groundless rebellion took place. But G-d rebuilt the personae of Moses and Aaron, impressing on the Israelites their true caliber. In the final quiet lesson of the blossoms and almonds, no ground gave way, and there were no fireworks or plagues, but instead a gentle word in the form of a supernatural visual floral demonstration. Like with Elijah the Prophet, the Word of G-d did not come to him in the powerful wind, or in the earthquake, or in the fire, but afterwards, in the still, small, voice. It was that voice that caused Elijah to ‘wrap his face in his cloak’ (Kings 1 19:13). But the wind, earthquake, and fire were all necessary to create the background where the ‘still small voice’ would be most effective. And Elijah reacted accordingly – he saw that G-d was at His most intense when speaking quietly, and he felt the intensity of His Presence…

Similarly the Israelites. Following the previous dramatic events, the blossoms and almonds were their ‘still small voice’ from the Almighty. It was this event that conveyed the greatness of Moses and Aaron to the Israelites, and following the previous dramatic events, ‘struck the note’ intended in their hearts.

They suddenly realized who they were. Far from being part of a free-for-all democracy with equal access to the Almighty, they suddenly found that there was a great spiritual gap between themselves and their leaders. The very thing that they were desperate for – close individual contact with G-d - was no longer perceived to be within their grasp. They felt that if they came sufficiently near enough for it to be of real meaning, they would die…

However, G-d provided the solution – in the next few verses. The body of the Israelites were joined together the Priesthood - with those who had closer contact with G-d. That was thorough the various forms of material support that they were obliged to give to the Priests. By those means they themselves would ‘come closer to the Tabernacle of G-d’.

We learn from here that a person should aim to make spiritual progress, but within the parameters of his situation, gifts, and personality. For example if he is not a gifted Torah scholar, he should learn as well as he can, and use his other gifts in supporting Torah and worthy causes.



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