This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aharon Ben Fruma
-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
קֹרַח ~ Korach
“The True Deathly Poison”
Among the many complaints the B’nei Yisrael make in Sefer B’Midbar and in Parshas Korach alone, there is one less talked about one which immediately follows the literal downfall of Korach and his assembly. Earthshattering an end as it was for Korach—and with that, the puns will stop—the B’nei Yisrael, in many ways, remained unchanged by the experience. This is apparent as they proceeded to make a new allegation against the establishment telling Moshe Rabbeinu and his brother Aharon HaKohein, saying “HaMisem Es Am Hashem”-“You have killed the people of Hashem” [B’Midbar 17:6].
Considering that Hashem came out of His abode to demonstrate through undeniable intervention that Moshe and Aharon were sent by Him, this new claim against them is particularly vexing. As such, Hashem tells Moshe and Aharon to separate themselves from congregation so that He can unleash a plague against the B’nei Yisrael [17:10], nothing too unfamiliar to us at this point of the Torah’s narrative. And so, amidst this plague which Hashem has justifiably sentenced the nation to, Moshe assigns Aharon the role of rescuing the people by telling him to take a Ketores (incense) and offer it before Hashem to provide atonement for the people [17:11], perhaps like some form of Yom Kippur service. And from the Torah text, it was really as simple as that. The Torah tells us that Aharon “stood in between the dead and the living,” offered the Ketores and ended the plague [17:12-13].
However, if one looks at Rashi, there was much more going on in the story. Rashi actually quotes a couple of different versions of what was unfolding here. In Rashi’s first P’shat [to 17:13, citing Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 15], he explains that when the Torah says that “Vaya’amod Bein HaMeisim U’Vein HaChaim”-“and he stood between the dead and between the living,” it was not actually talking about Aharon HaKohein, but rather, about an angel, presumably the Malach HaMoves (Angel of Death). Rashi explains that Aharon grabbed him and held him in place—“in between the dead and the living”—whereupon the Angel demanded that he be released to fulfill his mission. Aharon argued that Moshe actually sent him to stop him, but the Angel was hardly convinced to do so because it was Hashem Himself who sent him to plague the people. In response, Aharon clarified that whatever Moshe ordered actually emanated from the Will of G-d, and such, the Malach HaMoves’s services were no longer required. Finally convinced, the Angel withheld the plague. That is the first Midrash.
In the second Midrash, Rashi [citing a combination of Mechilta, Beshalach, Vayisa 6 and Brachos 33A] focuses on the Ketores and addresses the following question as to why Aharon specifically needed to create atonement for the people using the Ketores. Rashi explains that the people had actually denounced the Ketores saying that it is a “Sam Moves” [Pronunciation: SAHM MUH-VES] or a deathly poison, considering that Aharon’s own sons Nadav and Avihu died offering incense before Hashem, and most recently, two hundred fifty individuals of Korach’s assembly were killed in a similar way. Thus, Aharon needed to show that in fact, the Ketores was not a “Sam Moves,” but an “Otzeir Mageifah,” a “plague stopper,” and that really, it is sin that kills. This suggestion by Rashi may be in line his comments on the previous verse [citing Shabbos 89A] that Moshe Rabbeinu had learned the secret from the Malach HaMoves that the Ketores was actually a plague stopper. Thus, the second Midrash…
The question is what in the world Rashi is trying to do. Whenever something is unclear in the Torah, usually Rashi will come along to provide a simple explanation for us. Now and then, when the text is super vague, Rahsi will cite a Midrashic excerpt from Chazzal to fill in the blanks and teach various lessons. But here, the story was not so puzzling. Hashem makes a plague and Aharon provides a ritual to stop it. It’s just another “innocent” story about the people complaining, being killed as a response, and then being spared. It should be as simple as that. Why does Rashi go out of his way to pull Midrashim out of the archives about conversations with the Angel of Death and deathly poisons? What is Rashi trying to convey through these bizarre sounding Midrashim?
Whenever encountering Midrashim, especially such exotic ones, one has to consider what their intended message was, how it is that each Midrash sheds light on the Torah’s narrative. In the same vein, when there are multiple Midrashim quoted on a single verse that are pointing at a similar theme, one has to take note of that theme and understand the Torah’s message accordingly. But, in order to understand the meaning and themes in the Midrashim and their bearing on the narrative, one has to be able to plug them back into the simple understanding of the narrative.
Now, what exactly is the Torah trying to tell us in this small and seemingly generic episode in which the Israelites complain, get plagued, and are then spared by their leaders and heroes at the last second? What is the simple message?
Looking at our narrative, we mentioned that the people targeted Moshe and Aharon, accusing them of killing the people of Hashem. Of course, they are referring to what they had just witnessed in the tragedy of Korach’s rebellion, where they watched families of esteemed B’nei Yisrael being swallowed up in the ground, as well as two hundred fifty princes being consumed in a fire while offering the fire-pans before Hashem.
It had all begun when Korach challenged Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon’s chosenness. Moshe laid out the “fire-pan challenge” in which the most rightful Kohein’s fire-pan would be accepted by Hashem, and Korach and the princes would confidently accept and suffered for it. Of course, all of this was Korach’s fault, and of course Korach’s assembly were, as well, at fault for joining him in the revolt. Those who died essentially dug their own graves and marched to their own death. But, the nation decided to point the guilty finger at Moshe and Aharon.
All of the above is the background, of course, for the episode we’re dealing with now. Now, what is the simple idea behind this little narrative about Moshe telling Aharon to offer incense to stop the plague? Based on the background and the two approaches suggested by Rashi, we might say that the point of the narrative is to respond to the misplaced allegations of the people. They saw people suffering for their sins, but instead, attempted to pin the fault elsewhere.
Why is it important that Moshe told Aharon to save the B’nei Yisrael altogether? Explains R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch brilliantly, the Torah is trying to demonstrate how quite contrary to the brazen accusations against them, even at this point, Moshe and Aharon are not only not “killing the people of Hashem,” but they are going out of their way to protect the people of Hashem when Hashem Himself would rightfully have had them killed.
And if you think about it, that might be the basis for Rashi’s first P’shat about Aharon’s argument with Death. Why does the Midrash tell us about this strange conversation? Aharon stops the angel in his tracks. The angel argues “Hashem wants me to kill them.” Aharon argues that Moshe said “No.” What is this all about? The Midrash is actually responding to the notion that “Moshe and Aharon are killers” here. In fact, Aharon, pursuing peace as always, is arguing with Death himself based on Moshe’s orders, countering G-d’s explicit command, on behalf of the unworthy people! Hashem wants them killed, but Moshe and Aharon are the ones intervening for them.
In this vein, when the Torah tells us firstly that Moshe told Aharon “Holeich Meheirah”-“go quickly” [17:11], and secondly, “Vayaratz Aharon”-“and Aharon ran,” that we get such a sense of the care and consideration that Moshe and Aharon had for the people, and unfortunately, the twistedness of the B’nei Yisrael’s attempt to label Moshe and Aharon as killers.
And how about the second P’shat in Rashi? The idea that the B’nei Yisrael labeled the Ketores as a deathly poison, in the same vein, is an attempt to shift the blame elsewhere by attributing the deaths they witnessed to the incense. By doing that, they apparently attempted to exonerate or at least overlook the offence of Korach’s assembly. “Of course, they must’ve died because there is something inherently wrong with offering Ketores.” In this light, Rashi’s second explanation actually highlights how inherently, the Ketores was an antidote, a plague stopper, and not a deathly poison. But of course, the idea is the same. It’s all about avoiding the truth as to who is at fault.
This claim of the people is one of multiple instances in which the people have apparently misread the tragedy they were beholding and therefore incorrectly attributed the said tragedy to a completely innocent party.
In next week’s Sidrah, Parshas Chukas for example [B’Midbar 21], which takes place some thirty-eight years later, the B’nei Yisrael complain about the serpent horde that was incited against them in response to their complaints, whereupon Moshe Rabbeinu specifically erects a copper serpent on a pole which they would look at and live, to teach them that it is not the serpents that ultimately caused their death but their own sinful ways [Rosh HaShannah 3:8, See also Gemara in Rosh HaShannah 29A]! We might say the same idea is being conveyed here that people have to take responsibility for their own actions and stop blaming irrelevant factors like the external situation or the management.
Now, with all of the above in mind, there is a subtle but important difference between the serpent scene in Chukas and the Ketores scene here in Korach. Regarding the serpent scene, the people themselves did the sin, suffered for it, and were taught that they should not point the finger at the serpents but at themselves, however, here in Korach, the people observed the suffering of others and actively pointed the guilty finger at something or someone else other than the sinners.
Why is this difference important? Because to notice the faults in oneself is obviously crucial. That is the basis for introspection. But, when it comes to noticing the fault in others, we are naturally challenged by conflicting ideals. For example, we might argue: What about the concept of being “Dan L’Kaf Zechus,” judging every person with the benefit of the doubt? The people who died offering the incense were all, at least at some point, righteous leaders of the B’nei Yisrael, and perhaps the B’nei Yisrael were right to sympathize for them! We’re always taught how important, and yet, how so incredibly difficult it is to judge people favorably.
In modern psychology, there is a phenomenon known as the Fundamental Attribution Error, in which people tend to blame the individual person or personality for his or her actions and ignore the situational factors that contributed to the person’s actions. Yes, there are bad people out there, but perhaps just as often if not more often, there good or at least decent people who mess up and do bad things. And often enough, it is not necessarily their fault directly. People can be subject to a negative situation or poor upbringing, guidance, and leadership. And when we blame the person alone for his crimes, one might argue, that we are lacking a certain degree of sympathy for the person, ignoring their situation. Such a lack of “Dan L’Kaf Zechus” causes us to demonize so many decent people!
All of that is one hundred percent true. HOWEVER, the Fundamental Attribution Error is not the only erroneous attribution that plagues society. Often times, society is willing to go in the polar opposite direction overlook the unmistakably inappropriate actions of individuals and completely blame the “the situation.” And sometimes, they will go as far as blaming innocent and even righteous people for the sins of others. Under such misdirection, even criminals of terror can be (and are today) held unaccountable for their actions!
Were there other contributing factors? Maybe. Probably. Of Course. But, at the end of the day, when the crime was undeniably committed, it doesn’t matter! At the end of the day, people who sin and commit crimes must be held accountable for their actions!
In our Sidrah, YES, the people offered a Ketores and suffered, and had it been a ritual less “sensitive,” had the circumstances been different, maybe, the individuals might not have died. But, they still sinned and they brought the death upon themselves! YES, Moshe and Aharon were involved in the story too! But THEY didn’t lead a rebellion! THEY didn’t target the innocent. They did not start up with anyone or commit any crimes. And yet, the people have decided, not merely to “forgive” and sympathize with the trespassers, but they actually took a page out of Korach’s playbook as they shifted the blame elsewhere and targeted the religion and its leaders. “The Ketores is a deathly poison!” “Moshe and Aharon are murderers!” Certainly, in this situation as well as many others, that’s NOT called being “Dan L’Kaf Zechus.” That’s called intellectual dishonesty. That’s called misplaced sympathy. And by pointing guilty finger at their own advocates, the B’nei Yisrael were actually judging the innocent “L’Kaf Chov,” on the side of guilt, in the most despicable way, showing that it had nothing to do with judging the princes favorably. They shifted them blame the way they did because it fit the narrative that they were more comfortable with, the one that didn’t challenge their way of life and demand that they actually work on themselves! Because, in the same situation, they apparently would have done the same thing, and of course “We can’t be in the wrong!” So, as long as the religion is at fault, and as long as the leaders are murderers, no “sinner” has to feel guilty and, really, no one has to comply with the religion or its leaders.
And this done all of the time today! We sympathize with the people that we want to identify with or the people that come off as the victims in our own eyes, and we do so even when it’s their fault, as long it supports our own tendencies, our own political opinion, and whatever else needs to be supported so that we can sleep at night without once having to confront our own faulty way of thinking and question whether or not we have to work on ourselves. It’s tempting, isn’t it? But, it’s wrong.
At the end of the day, of course, we have to be responsible for our own actions. And of course, we have to be Dan L’Kaf Zechus in an open-minded and generous way. But, at the same time, when assessing the people around us, we have to be intellectually honest, giving both credit and discredit where either is due. We have to decide where our exonerations and condemnations are coming from, and we have to be ready to question whether or not we would do the same thing in the same situation, and if we would be right or wrong for doing so! If we do that, we will not be plagued by the true “deathly poison” in our midst that is our own corrupt inclinations, and instead, we will put an end to the plague by becoming more honest, introspective, and all around better people.
May we all be Zocheh to judge everyone generously but appropriately, be honest with ourselves and others, just do the right thing, and Hashem should put an end to all the plagues and suffering in the world, once and for all, with the coming of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos Rosh Chodesh!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂