The essay below continues my examination of rebellions in last week’s portion, Korach. If you would like to read about one of the rebellions this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, you might enjoy my 2017 post: Chukat: The Price of Silence.
Miraculous mass killings fail to stamp out the first two rebellions in the portion Korach (one by the Reubenites Datan and Aviram, and one led by the Levite Korach). The three ringleaders and their families die when God splits the earth and the ground swallows them. The 250 Levites who supported Korach’s demand for equal privileges with the priests die when God sends forth a fire that incinerates them. (See my post Korach: Quelling Rebellion, Part 1.)
Moses expects these divine demonstrations will prove to all the surviving Israelites that he and his brother Aaron did not seize power, but were only appointed by God. Yet the Israelites do not learn the intended lesson. It does not occur to them that if they do not rebel against God and God’s appointees, they will not be swallowed by an earthquake.1 And they blame Moses and Aaron, not God, for the death of the 250 Levites who supported Korach’s cause.
Vayilonu on the following day, all the community of the Israelites, against Moses and against Aaron, saying: “You had the people of God put to death!” (Numbers 17:6)
vayilonu (וַיִּלֺּנוּ) = and they muttered, and they grumbled. (A form of the verb lon, לוֹן = mutter, grumble, complain.)
Halting a plague
So the God-character reacts with a third deadly miracle, and starts a plague to wipe out everyone except Moses and Aaron.
I can hardly blame this anthropomorphic version of God for being fed up with the Israelites again. I get fed up myself when I try to work with people who refuse to accept reality, and persist in doing things that only make the situation worse. Sometimes I throw up my hands and abandon the whole enterprise. In other words, I get these people out of my life by walking away from them.
But Moses and Aaron do not give up, walk away, and let God wipe out the Israelites.
And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Get up away from the midst of this community, and I will devour them in an instant !” But they [Moses and Aaron] fell on their faces. Then Moses said to Aaron: “Take the fire-pan and put fire from the altar on the incense, and go quickly into the community and make atonement over them! Because the rage has gone forth from God; the plague has begun!” (Numbers/Bemidbar 17:9-10)
This is not an action that God authorized. But it is enough to make the God-character stop short.
He [Aaron] stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was brought to a standstill. (Numbers 17:13)
Perhaps when the Israelites who are sick, but not yet dead, see Aaron standing between the dead and the living with a pan of smoking incense, they realize that Moses and Aaron want them to live, and they drop their notion that these two leaders are the problem rather than the solution. Once they have this change of heart, God stops the plague, and the people stop their plague of false accusations.
As soon as Aaron returns to Moses at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, a calmer God-character tells Moses to take a staff from the chieftain of each tribe.
… twelve staffs. You will write each man’s name on his staff. And the name of Aaron you will write on the staff of Levi, because [there will be] one staff for the head of each of their ancestral houses. Then leave them in the Tent of Meeting, in front of the Reminder [the ark] where I meet with you. And it will happen: the man whom I choose, his staff will sprout. And [thus] I will damp down from opposing me the telunot of the Israelites who are malinim against you.” (Numbers 17:17-20)
telunot (תְּלֻנּוֹת) = complaining, grumblings. (Also from the root lon.)
malinim (מַלִּנִם) = muttering, grumbling. (Another form of the verb lon.)
The next day, Moses brings all the staffs out of the sanctuary tent. Aaron’s staff has sprouted, flowered, and borne ripe almonds.
Nobody is killed or punished in this divine demonstration. But everyone sees that God has chosen the Levites to handle holy matters, and has chosen Aaron as the head of the Levites.
Then God said to Moses: “Put Aaron’s staff back in front of the Reminder, to be preserved as a sign for the obstinate, and it will end their telunot from opposing me, and they will not die.” (Numbers 17:25)
Does this benign approach to ending rebellion work?
Response to Despair
Then the Israelites spoke to Moses, saying: “Hey! We perish! We are lost, all of us are lost. Anyone who comes close to God’s sanctuary will die. Will we ever be done with perishing?” (17:27-28)
This time the Israelites begin with an statement of despair. This might be another complaint, or it might be merely an expression of their anxiety. Then they ask Moses a question. They are no longer rebelling against his leadership, but asking him, as their leader, for information.
If only the Torah had recorded Moses’s response! I can imagine him either reassuring his people or telling them what hard truths they must face—and perhaps even adding how he, Aaron, and/or God will help them. But instead, the Torah records what God says.
Then God said to Aaron: “You and your sons and your ancestral house along with you, you [all] shall bear [any] punishment for wrongdoing [regarding] the holy place, and you and your sons along with you shall bear [any] punishment for wrongdoing [regarding] your priesthood.” (Numbers 18:1)
Next God reaffirms the role of the rest of the tribe of Levi: they must assist the priests and do their duties regarding the Tent of Meeting, but they may not touch the altar or any of the holy items inside the sanctuary-tent.3
And an unauthorized person must not come near you as you observe your custody of the holy place and custody of the altar; then there will not be rage again against the Israelites. (18:5)
The information God gives to Aaron answers the Israelites’ question. The Levites are “done with perishing” as long as they do not dispute God’s appointment of Aaron and his descendants as priests, and the Levites as the priests’ assistants. The rest of the Israelites are “done with perishing” as long as they let God’s appointees do their jobs, and do not try to touch the altar or the tent-sanctuary.
The Levites do not rebel again. The rest of the Israelites respect God, Moses, Aaron, and the holy sanctuary for a while.
But after Miriam dies and they run out of water in this week’s portion, Chukat, they assemble against Moses and Aaron, and Moses loses his temper.4 Later in Chukat they speak against God and Moses because they are tired of eating manna, and the God-character starts killing people.5
It is human nature to resent and blame whoever is in charge—even when the leaders (or administrators or parents or heads of state) are reasonable, and even when the rules are benign and easy to follow, and even when the current misfortune is the fault of a previous administration.
May we be blessed with reasonable leaders. But may we also learn how to become reasonable followers.
My thanks to Lawrence Feinberg, who found many of the illustrations for these two posts on Korach.