“Aaron Stops the Plague”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we read of the dramatic rebellion of Korach, Datan and Abiram, and their co-conspirators–members of the tribe of Reuben and 250 important leaders of Israel.

Korach protested against Moses and Aaron for what he thought was the lack of fairness in the makeup of the leadership of Israel. Korach complained that Moses had usurped all the temporal/political powers for himself by assuming the leadership of Israel, and had relegated the religious/spiritual powers to his brother, Aaron. Korach thought that as a member of the noble tribe of Levi himself and as part of the special family of Kehat, he was clearly entitled to play a major leadership role in Israel.

Shaken by Korach’s charges against him, Moses tells Korach that on the very next morning, G-d will show the people who G-d’s chosen leaders truly are. He instructs Korach’s followers to take firepans and place fire and incense on them, and allow G-d to choose who is holy. The next morning the 250 men with the firepans, and Aaron, with his own firepan, stood at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, as G-d’s presence appeared before the entire assembly of Israel.

Despite the Al-mighty’s anger and His wish to immediately destroy the entire community, Moses and Aaron fall on their faces to ask that G-d punish only the guilty perpetrators. Moses and Aaron plead with the innocent people to separate themselves from Korach and his evil followers.

When Moses finished speaking, the ground that was under Korach and his followers split, and the earth swallowed Korach, his family and all the people who had joined Korach, their households and all their wealth. Korach and his followers descended alive into the pit, the earth covered them, and they were lost forever.

All of the People of Israel who were around Korach and his followers, fled for their lives, lest they be swallowed up as well. The Torah in Numbers 16:35 reports that a flame then came forth from G-d and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.

G-d instructed Moses to tell Elazar, the son of Aaron, to collect the 250 firepans from amidst the fire, for they had become holy, and to fashion the firepans into a covering for the Altar, where they should serve as a reminder to the Children of Israel, that no one who is not of the offspring of Aaron, may draw near to bring up the smoke of incense before G-d.

Despite the miracles that the people saw and the severe punishment of Korach and his assembly, scripture reports, Numbers 17:6, וַיִּלֹּנוּ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמָּחֳרָת עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר:  אַתֶּם הֲמִתֶּם אֶת עַם השם, The entire assembly of the Children of Israel complained on the next day against Moses and Aaron, saying: “You have killed the people of G-d.” Notwithstanding the miracles of the earth splitting and the fire coming down from Heaven and devouring the 250 holders of incense, the people brazenly and willfully continue to confront and challenge Moses.

In a Dvar Torah that appeared in the Shabbat Echod of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in June 2009, a prominent member, Gideon Schor, cogently argues that it is possible to interpret this new challenge as an even greater crisis to Moses than Korach’s rebellion. He writes: “While Korach and his supporters accused Moses and Aaron of self-aggrandizement, and of offending mortals, the people as a whole were now accusing Moses and Aaron of murder and of offending G-d Himself.”

G-d’s reaction was fast and furious. The Tent of Meeting, by now, was covered by a cloud, and the Glory of G-d appeared. G-d declares, Numbers 17:10, הֵרֹמּוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת, וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם כְּרָגַע, Remove yourselves from among this assembly, and I shall destroy them in an instant!

Moses and Aaron again fall on their faces. Moses resorts to a last-ditch effort to save the Jewish people.

Rashi citing Talmud Shabbat 89a, explains that when Moses had ascended to Heaven to receive the Torah, each of the ministering angels, even the Angel of Death, taught him a secret. The Angel of Death’s lesson was that incense has the power to stop a plague.

Since the people of Israel were convinced that the incense had previously caused the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, now had led to the demise of Korach’s 250 followers, G-d wanted to show the People of Israel that incense was not lethal. It is sin that causes death.

Moses instructs Aaron to take his firepan, put fire from the Altar upon it, place incense on it, and go quickly to the assembled masses to provide atonement for them, for the plague had begun and the fury of G-d had turned toward the people.

Aaron does as Moses instructed. He runs into the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun. Scripture in Numbers 17:13, describes the scene: וַיַּעֲמֹד בֵּין הַמֵּתִים וּבֵין הַחַיִּים, וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה,

And he [Aaron] stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was checked. 14,700 people died in that plague.

In his D’var Torah, Gideon Schor suggests that if Aaron were an ordinary person he would have argued with Moses about having to risk his life to save these despicable rebellious upstarts, who do not deserve to be saved. Besides, if G-d wants to destroy them, who is Aaron to interfere with the Al-mighty’s plans. Furthermore, no one really knows whether the secret of the incense will even work. Why then should Aaron risk his life for those who plot against G-d and the Jewish people, knowing that few of them, in similar circumstances, would have risen up to save Aaron? Aaron would be justified to be fearful of G-d’s anger for intervening on behalf of the wrongdoers. With piles of bodies already lined up, why would Aaron feel that he could do anything to stop the plague?

Gideon Schor further points out, that Numbers 17:12 indicates,  וַיִּקַּח אַהֲרֹן כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה, וַיָּרָץ אֶל-תּוֹךְ הַקָּהָל, וְהִנֵּה הֵחֵל הַנֶּגֶף בָּעָם, that Aaron brazenly risked his life by running into the very midst of the congregation. The plague had already begun among the people, and Aaron, without hesitation, stood with his own body in the line of fire to protect the people from the Angel of Death.

Gideon Schor concludes that it was Aaron’s אַהֲבַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, Ahavat Yisrael, his abiding love for the Jewish People that made him dismiss any fear for his own safety. Following Moses’ instructions, Aaron heroically and selflessly took up the peoples’ cause, literally wrestling with the Angel of Death, to save those who strayed and protect those who were sick. He simply refused to give up on even a single Jew, even those who were unworthy.

I would like to add one more element to Gideon Schor’s insightful interpretation of why Aaron stood up for the people, aside from his total devotion and love for the People of Israel.

For Aaron, the bringing of the קְטֹרֶת, Ketoret, the firepans with the incense, was not just a religious ritual that G-d had commanded. The Ketoret weighed heavily on Aaron. It was laden with painful and excruciating memories. It was due to the Ketoret brought improperly by Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Abihu, that they died (Leviticus 10). To Aaron, and to many of the people of Israel, the Ketoret was considered סַם הַמָּוֶת, Sahm Ha’mavet–poison, an instrument of G-d’s wrath, associated with instant death. Yet, it is this same Ketoret that Aaron brings on Yom Kippur, in the privacy of the Holy of Holies, facing his Creator alone, to beg for forgiveness for the People of Israel.

Surely Moses and Aaron wanted to show the People of Israel that Ketoret was not Sahm Ha’mavet, poison, but that sin is the poison. Defying and disobeying G-d, can, and does, result in death.

Perhaps Aaron wanted to show that just as a bereaved parent, who loses a child in an accident or due to disease, can choose to donate that child’s organs, so that others may live, Aaron sought to perpetuate the memory of his dead sons, keeping others alive by using the very instrument and performing the very ritual by which his own sons lost their lives.

It was a lesson that Aaron learned from his deceased sons, that Ketoret can be both a source of death and the elixir of life.

The tens of thousands of Israelites, who were saved from the plague, will always remember that they were spared because of the bravery and selflessness of Aaron, and because of the elixir of life that Aaron brought to perpetuate the memory of his two sons, who were lost in the tragedy of the Ketoret.

May you be blessed.