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The following article is reprinted with permission from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
But all the Children of Israel grumbled on the morrow against Moshe and against Aharon, saying: (It is) you (who) caused the death of YHWH’s [God’s] people! Now it was, when the community assembled against Moshe and against Aharon, that they turned toward the Tent of Appointment, and here: the cloud had covered it, and the Glory of YHWH could be seen! Then Moshe and Aharon came to the front of the Tent of Appointment. And YHWH spoke to Moshe, saying: Move aside from the midst of this community, that I may finish them off in an instant!
They flung themselves upon their faces. Moshe said to Aharon: Take (your) pan and place upon it fire from the slaughter site, putting smoking incense (there); go quickly to the community and effect appeasement for them, for the fury is (still) going out from the presence of YHWH, the plague has begun! Aharon took (it), as Moshe had spoken, and he ran to the midst of the assembly: and here, the plague had begun among the people! So he put the smoking incense (in it), and effected appeasement for the people: now he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was held back. Now those that died in the plague were fourteen thousand and seven hundred, aside from those that died in the matter of Korah. Aharon returned to Moshe, to the entrance of the Tent of Appointment, and the plague was held back.
Your Torah Navigator
1. Why were the people upset with Moshe and Aharon when they knew that God had swallowed them up?
2. How did Moshe know to tell Aharon that incense was needed to effect an appeasement?
3. What does it mean that Aharon “stood” between the dead and the living?
Rashi on the verse “now he (Aharon) stood between the dead and the living:”
Aharon grabbed the Angel of Death and held him back against his will. The angel said to him: Leave me to fulfill my mission. Aharon replied: Moshe ordered me to detain you. The angel answered: I am a messenger of God and you are only a messenger of Moshe. Aharon answered: Moshe never does anything on his own, all his orders come from the Mighty One. If you don’t believe me the Holy One and Moshe are both at the Tent of Appointment right now. Come with me and ask them. That is why the following verse says, “And Aharon returned to Moshe, to the entrance of the Tent of Appointment and the plague was held back.”
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, known by the acronym the “Netziv,” on his famous super-commentary on Rashi and the Torah said that the people found the slaughter of the 250 excessive. Moshe and Aharon could have limited the trial to Korah, Dotan and Aviram, and once the earth had swallowed them up, the others would have repented. The Netziv points out that Moshe and Aharon were not the ultimate designers of the trial, but it was Moshe acting on the Divine Spirit.
Rashi understands that when the verse says, “Now he stood between the dead and the living,” Aharon was literally standing between the Angel of Death and those whom the angel wished to destroy. He holds the angel back with the incense that protected Moshe from being swallowed up as Korah’s minions were destroyed. The angel wants Aharon to leave so he can finish his job, but Aharon convinces the angel to return to the tent with him and the plague is stopped.
Just as lack of fear and belief in God’s power brings destruction, so does belief in God’s instruments and reverence for God’s might bring healing and mercy. The people were not worthy, but Aharon, the worthy advocate, stopped death in its tracks and brought yet another reprieve on a recalcitrant people. Even after he had been compromised by the Golden Calf, Aharon is willing to look death straight in the eye to save a community who would most probably not return the favor.
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