September 23, 2018

Torah portion: Between the dead and the living

It wasn’t a pretty scene. Rebellion and chaos permeated the Israelite camp. Korach — the cousin of Moses and Aaron — rallied 250 agitators in an attempted coup d’état against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. The fate of the failed rebels was tragic: “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all of Korach’s people, and all their possessions” (Numbers 16:32). 

The community’s reaction to this lethal earthquake was swift and adversarial: “The next day, the whole Israelite community railed against Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘You two have brought death upon the Lord’s people!’” (Numbers 17:6). Moses and Aaron turned to God for advice, but God had seen enough: “Remove yourselves from this community, that I may annihilate them in an instant” (Numbers 17:10). 

Coming off an attempted rebellion against them, and now being blamed for the rebels’ deaths, Moses and Aaron surely were fed up with the community that God wanted to destroy. Despite their frustration, Moses and Aaron prayed that God should not annihilate their people. 

But it was too late. God unleashed a lethal plague. 

At this point, Moses quickly instructs Aaron to bring an incense offering “and make expiation for them, for wrath has gone forth from the Lord: the plague has begun” (Numbers 17:11). The hope is that Aaron’s offering will appease God and stop the plague — the fate of the Israelites now rests in Aaron’s hands.

Who was Aaron? As the high priest, his role was confined to a strict, regimented set of rituals within God’s Tabernacle. He knew firsthand that tampering with the rules was punishable by death, as experienced by his sons Nadab and Abihu, when they “offered a strange fire before God … and a fire went out from God and devoured them” (Leviticus 10:1-2). Bound by a position that has no flexibility, Aaron appears as a quiet, introverted functionary within God’s Tabernacle. We know very little about his personality.

But great leadership is about deeds, not words. As a deadly plague threatens to annihilate the entire Israelite community, Aaron reveals a bold and noble side of his character. As a true expression of love for his people, Aaron places human life above  the priestly laws, and risks his own life in the process: “Aaron ran to the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun amongst the people. He put on the incense and made expiation for the people; he stood between the dead and the living until the plague was stopped” (Numbers 17:12-13).

By throwing himself into the plague and standing “between the dead and the living,” Aaron violates a strict rule against a high priest coming into contact with the dead (Leviticus 21:11). Aaron violates this rule in order to save the living. 

The midrash teaches that upon entering the scene of the plague, Aaron confronted the Angel of Death, who was ruthlessly slaughtering the Israelites. The Targum (Aramaic translation/interpretation of the Torah) records that “Aaron stood among the dead, begging the Angel of Death for mercy.” Rashi depicts a physical confrontation, during which “Aaron grabbed the Angel of Death and physically tried to stop him.” Either way, teaches Shadal, a 19th-century commentator, “Aaron risked his life by confronting the Angel of Death.”

When Aaron eventually dies (spoiler alert: it’s in next week’s Torah portion), “All the house of Israel cried for Aaron for 30 days” (Numbers 20:29). Later tradition records the day of Aaron’s death — Rosh Chodesh Av (the first day of Av) — as a “day upon which it is appropriate to fast.” The famous reason behind the intensity of the mourning is that the community lost its peacemaker. Tradition teaches that Aaron reconciled differences and resolved quarrels. Indeed, we are taught: “Hillel said: Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving human beings and drawing them close to the Torah” (Pirke Avot 1:12).

But Aaron represented something even bigger than a peacemaker. His passing was mourned bitterly because the people knew that he risked his life to save their lives. When he heroically “stood between the dead and the living,” Aaron saved the Israelite nation from extinction. 

The 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch called Aaron the “redeeming conqueror of death.” I call him the “Angel of Life.” 

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the international director of the Sephardic Educational Center.