The second half of the Book of Numbers is filled with rebellion and conflict. Moses is attacked by the people, by his family and by his tribe. Parashat Korach fits into this context, describing a major rebellion by several groups questioning the leadership of both Moses and Aaron. Korach is the leader of a group of Levites who claim that they too should be eligible for leadership, as they are from the tribe of Levi just as Moses and Aaron are.
In reading this parashah, I could not stop thinking about an earlier seminal event in the life of Aaron. In the Book of Leviticus we read of the untimely and tragic deaths of Aaron’s sons [Leviticus 10]. In that strange narrative, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring their firepans filled with incense before God even though they were not asked to do so. As a result, a fire “came out from God” and consumed the two of them, killing them instantly. Aaron’s response to this tragedy is total silence. It was perhaps a silence of acceptance, perhaps a silence of despondency, or perhaps a silence stemming from a lack of understanding.
The story of Korach repeats language from that earlier tragic event. We have a similar use of firepans filled with incense, brought forward by Korach’s followers and by Aaron. We have God sending fire to devour the rebels bringing those firepans, and we have Aaron, who is once again left standing following an act of immolation.
How did Aaron deal with this experience? Imagine Aaron being asked to carry out the exact event that led to the death of his sons. Imagine the tremendous personal pain he had to be experiencing at that moment. In addition, this was all in the context of a rebellion against him and his brother, a rebellion that included a number of different groups, all questioning the leadership that Moses and Aaron had been providing to the people.
In this case, however, Aaron wasn’t silent. In this case, he stood up and made clear to God that the people as a whole needed to be saved. When God tells Moses and Aaron that they should separate from the people so that God could destroy the community, Moses and Aaron together intercede on behalf of the people, claiming that only the guilty should be punished [Numbers 16:20-22]. Here, Aaron finds his voice. Aaron, who understood the pain of loss, and who was reliving it himself, could not help but speak out on behalf of the people, praying for their protection. There could be no more worthy or sensitive intercessor.
One of the interesting phrases that repeats in this section is “rav lakhem,” “it is too much for you.” That’s what Korach says to Moses, claiming that Moses has taken on too much power and has overstepped [16:3]. Moses then repeats this phrase back to Korach, telling him and his co-conspirators that they are overstepping their roles [16:7]. This idea of overstepping is at the core of this text. The rebels claim that Moses and Aaron have taken on roles that they do not deserve over others. Moses and Aaron argue that the Levites should be happy with their special role in the community, and should not demand more.
The death of Aaron’s sons was also a result of their going beyond their assigned roles. They too overstepped, and paid for it with their lives.
This is a moment of crisis in the Israelite experience in the wilderness. Rav lakhem — It is too much for you. It was too much for Moses to bear, being attacked yet again, and in anger he asks God not to respond to the rebels’ requests [16:15]. It is too much for God to bear, as God tells Moses and Aaron of God’s desire to destroy the full community [16:21]. And yet, the one for whom it should be the hardest to bear, Aaron, the one experiencing this tragedy in the most personal way, shines. He does what he needs to do: He protects the people and protects the priestly leadership position that he holds.
Aaron’s behavior is often questionable, such as during the Golden Calf incident, or when he and Miriam themselves rebel against Moses. It feels especially meaningful, therefore, to see Aaron here truly come into his role, in the most difficult of times, and be the leader that is needed. It is thus most fitting that later in the parashah, he and his family are granted priestly leadership roles in perpetuity, and very soon afterwards, he dies. This text, as it brings together Aaron’s present and past, enables him to find his voice and, through hard-won empathy, to secure his special place in biblical thought.
Dr. Ora Horn Prouser is executive vice president and dean of The Academy for Jewish Religion.
Candlelighting: 8:13 p.m.
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Torah reading: Numbers 16:1-18:32
Haftorah reading: I Samuel 11:14-12:22
Shabbat ends: 9:21 p.m.