Moshe and Aharon - Murderers?

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion






By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





Last 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.


Unsatisfied 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?[1]


Failing 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.[2]  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 of God!"




How 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 their condemnation:


The 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.


The 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 advice.


The 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.


The 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 were destroyed."


The 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.


Almost 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 understood thus: 


"As 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!"[3]


With 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[4] (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 (17:27-28):


Benei Yisrael 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?"




At 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? 


As 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:


And 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!


You shall safeguard the charge of the Altar… that there shall be no more wrath against Benei Yisrael! (18:1, 3, 5)


Since 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)


God 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. 


[1] As we will discuss later, some commentators hold that his claim refers to the firstborn of each family only.

[2] Whether Korach himself is among the people offering incense (and hence dies by Divine Fire) or is swallowed alive by the earth is textually unclear.  See the Mishna (10:3) and Gemara (110a) in Sanhedrin, as well as the commentaries here of the Ibn Ezra and the Hamek Davar for suggested resolutions to this problem.

[3] The Rivash provides a different proof for this argument.  According to him, the test of the staffs that occurs afterwards proves that the test of the incense is unnecessary. 

[4] 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 die!"

Korach was considered intelligent, yet he agreed to a lunatic trial?  He was fooled by visions of the future, for he foresaw great descendants (Shemu'el Ha-navi) who would be the equals of Moshe and Aharon… so he agreed to the plan, assuming that the others would be killed, but not the one who would be chosen – himself!