And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment.” And they fell upon their faces. And Moses said to Aaron, “Take a censer, and put fire in it from the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly to the congregation, and make an atonement for them; for anger has come out from the Lord; the plague has begun.” And Aaron took as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the congregation; and, behold, the plague had begun among the people; and he put on incense, and made an atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stopped. And those who died in the plague were fourteen thousand and seven hundred, beside those who died about the matter of Korah. And Aaron returned to Moses to the door of the Tent of Meeting; and the plague was stopped.
Numbers 17: 9-15
At the heart of Parashat Korach stands an uprising against Moses and Aaron by two groups of rebels led by Korach, on one hand, and by Dathan and Abiram on the other. To show that G-d has, indeed, chosen Moses and Aaron to lead the Israelites, G-d lets loose his wrath on the rebels first by creating a giant crator in the Earth that swallows up the main group of rebels, then by incinerating another group, and finally by causing a deadly plague to dessimate the entire congregation of Israel, who by now was “murmuring” against Moses and Aaron for having brought so much death upon them. The entire tragic drama bolsters the legitimact of Moses and Aaron as the rightful leaders of Israel and, in the hands of commentators from the rabbinic sages to modern scholars and theologians, comes to teach valuable lessons about the nature of holiness and what constitutes debate “for the sake of heaven.”
Though an argument can be made that the community’s gripes and Korach’s challenge to Moses and Aaron are reasonable given the circumstances, the Torah’s stance is clear: Moses, Aaron and the kohanim are the good guys; those who challenge them are the bad guys. Thus, I find Moses’ and Aaron’s responses to the plague that God that brings about to silence the congregation quite remarkable. Whereas Moses had previously argued with God not to obliterate Israel both when the Israelites created a golden calf to worship and when scouts instilled doubt in the minds of Israel that they would be able to conquer the land of Canaan and possess it, here Moses doesn’t engage God at all. Rather, Moses directly intervenes on behalf of the very community that threatens him. By commanding Aaron to enter into the midst of the community with a fire pan with incense, Moses wants to stop halt the plague and save hundreds of thousand of lives. He may be at wits’ end with those he is charged to lead, but he refuses to abandon them. Instead, he takes the moral high ro
Aaron follows Moses lead. He, too, hurries to save Israel. One moment, Moses tells him to “go quickly to the congregation. The next moment, Aaron runs “into the midst of the congregation.” By specifying that Aaron ran and not simply “went quickly” as Moses had bade him, we see Aaron’s eagerness, too, to do right by human kind.
After witnessing the death of 14,700 Israelites, Moses and Aaron could throw up their hands in resignation or hold themselves above Israel in self-righteousness. But that’s not what they do. They follow their consciences to save life, and by doing so, serve as role models for selfless courage. In our day and age, we need such role models.
As we scan the news this week, we read about countless scenes of horror that call us to emulate Moses and Aaron: a senseless act of hatred at a black church in Charleston; the advance of radical Islamists in the Syria and Iraq; acts of nature disrupting and taking life; and so many more. We have the same choicea that our biblical leaders had: Do we argue with God to stop the destruction? Do we close our eyes and simply accept what is happening? Do we bask in the satisfaction that all this is happening somewhere far from us? Or do we act?
Moses and Aaron could not revive the thousands of dead Israelites, but they could insert themselves into the world they saw under attack to try to stop the madness. I don’t believe most of us as individuals can stop racists, bigots and extremists from wreaking havoc. We certainly can’t prevent waters from rising over the banks of rivers and bayous and pushing families out of their homes. But we do have the power to speak out against hatred, to encourage our government to fight ISIS, to support victims of natural disasters as they occur. There’s much we can do if we would only heed the call of our conscience.
Prayer itself wasn’t enough for Moses and Aaron to truly make a difference in their world, nor was arguing with God. When it came time to make a difference, they ran quickly to the aid not of friends and allies but of those who wished them ill. So, too, must we seize this moment to run quickly to change our world for all those in it, whether friends or strangers, whether we like them or not.