Between the Living and the Dead
How Parashat Korah demonstrates extraordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Parashat Korah tells of the mayhem and violence that often accompany political strife. After Korah the Levite challenged Moses' leadership and Aaron's priestly authority, a test was devised: God's choice for priestly service would become known after Korah and Aaron each offered sacrificial incense. The divine response was unmistakable. The earth "opened her mouth and swallowed" alive Korah and his household. The rebel's followers, in turn, were immolated in a fire "sent forth from God." (Numbers 16:32,35)
After witnessing these florid retributions, the Israelites gathered against Moses and Aaron, menacing them with the eerily prescient accusation that they had "brought death upon God's people." Outraged at the nation's defiance, God charged Moses and Aaron: "Remove yourselves from this community, that I may annihilate them in an instant!" (Numbers 17:6,10)
A plague soon stalked the camp, quickly consuming tens, then hundreds, then thousands. But neither Moses nor Aaron heeded God's command to separate from the people. Instead, in an audacious mirroring of the Israelites' defiance, Moses commanded Aaron to disobey God, prepare the sacrificial incense "and take it quickly to the community and make expiation for them." These were tense, frightening moments for the brothers, and terror strains through Moses' frantic aside to Aaron: "For wrath has gone forth from the Lord: the plague has begun!" (Numbers 17:11)
The constancy of Moses' and Aaron's devotion to this nation, which God has repeatedly threatened to destroy, makes it somewhat difficult to recognize the remarkable nature of their actions. Moses and Aaron did not try to save themselves--as God had commanded--but rather assumed the defense of a nation that had just rejected them. What is more, the curative is fraught with danger: Aaron must prepare the mercurial incense, whose offering had only just brought about Korah's demise and, more poignantly, the earlier deaths of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu.
But Aaron did not flinch. Instead, he "ran to the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun…" Offering incense for the people's expiation, Aaron "stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked." The outsized muscularity of body and spirit that this effort demanded is reflected in a midrash that tells of Aaron restraining the Angel of Death against its will (Rashi, Numbers 17:13).