Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bamidbar, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishing House
As the Korach narrative moves towards its dramatic and violent climax, God turns to Moshe and Aharon and commands: “Separate yourself from amid this eida [assembly], and I shall destroy them in an instant!”
Immediately Moshe and Aharon fall on their faces and object: “O God, God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and You be angry with the entire eida?”
God responds: “Speak to the eida, saying, ‘Get yourselves up from all around the dwelling places of Korach, Datan and Aviram.’ ”
What exactly transpires in this strange interchange between God, Moshe and Aharon? Apparently we must accept one of two possibilities. Either God changes His mind as the conversation unfolds or His use of the term eida changes contextually.
Specifically, to which eida (assembly) does God refer when He warns Moshe and Aharon, “Separate yourself from amid this eida, and I shall destroy them in an instant”?
Is the entire nation initially imperiled by God’s wrath, as Moshe and Aharon apparently assume? This approach allows for a consistent understanding of the term eida throughout the dialogue but requires an acceptance that God “changes His mind,” for He first threatens to destroy the eida (the entire nation), but relents upon hearing the objections of Moshe and Aharon. He then commands these leaders to move the eida away from the rebel camp.
Or…do Moshe and Aharon actually misunderstand God’s intent? Perhaps all along God threatens to punish only the participants in Korach’s rebellion. This approach allows for consistency in God’s plan but requires accepting a shift in God’s use of the term eida. God initially threatens to destroy the eida, referring to the rebel camp. When Moshe and Aharon erroneously assume that the entire nation is imperiled, God explains His intent more clearly and commands these leaders to separate the eida, the nation, from the rebels.
A number of classical commentaries, including Rabbeinu Chananel and the Kli Yakar, maintain that Moshe and Aharon initially misunderstand God’s intent. God, from the outset, only intends to punish the rebels. When God proclaims, “Separate yourself from amid this eida, and I shall destroy them in an instant,” he is threatening to destroy only Adat Korach, Korach’s assembly.
Moshe and Aharon, however, misinterpret God’s threat to destroy the eida as referring to the entire nation and they, therefore, object: “…shall one man sin, and You be angry with the entire eida?”
In response, God adopts Moshe and Aharon’s use of the word eida (referring to the entire nation), and clarifies His aim: “Speak to the eida [nation], saying, ‘Get yourselves up from all around the dwelling places of Korach, Datan and Aviram.” I never intended to destroy the entire nation. As long as the people move out of harm’s way, they will be safe.
Raising a series of objections to Rabbeinu Chananel’s approach, the Ramban exclaims: “Far be it [from us to say] that Moshe failed to understand his own prophecy and drew a mistaken conclusion.” Instead, the Ramban, Rashi and numerous other authorities adopt the position that Moshe and Aharon are correct in their initial assessment of the danger facing the Israelites. God fully intends to punish the entire nation in response to Korach’s rebellion and only relents after hearing Moshe and Aharon’s plea. According to these scholars, the meaning of the word eida remains consistent through the entire passage and refers to the nation as a whole.
Rashi and the Ramban do disagree, however, on one critical point.
Reflecting an earlier Midrashic tradition, Rashi maintains that Moshe and Aharon object to the fundamental inequity in God’s intended punishment of the nation. The people have done nothing wrong, they argue, and there is no excuse for a knowing God to inflict punishment upon the innocent. This argument, Rashi explains, courses beneath the surface of the terse conversation recorded in the text:
Moshe and Aharon: “O God, God of the spirits of all flesh…” Thou Who knows all thoughts: Yours is not the way of flesh and blood. A king of flesh and blood is unable to fully determine the identity of those who rebel against him. When angered, therefore, he exacts retribution upon all. To You, however, all thoughts are revealed and You know who the sinner is. Therefore, “Shall one man sin, and You be angry with the entire assembly?”
God: You have spoken well. I know and shall make known who has sinned and who has not sinned.
The Ramban, on the other hand, in contrast to Rashi, insists that the Israelites fully deserve their threatened punishment. At the onset of Korach’s rebellion, this scholar maintains, the Israelites are solidly supportive of Moshe and Aharon. As the rebellion progresses, however, Korach skillfully convinces the people that, in attempting to regain the privileges of the firstborn, he is defending the entire nation’s honor as well as his own. By the time the trial of the rebels begins, the Israelites’ support of Moshe and Aharon has waned and the entire nation stands in grave peril.
Confronted with this looming disaster, Moshe and Aharon successfully focus God’s attention on Korach as the principal perpetrator and, thereby, protect the people.
[Note: According to both Rashi and the Ramban, this event emerges as one of several in the Torah where God seems to change direction in response to the prayers of man. See Bereishit: Noach 1, Approaches A; Shmot: Teruma 1, Approaches B; Ki Tissa 5, Approaches D; Shelach 1, Points to Ponder B; for discussions of some of the philosophical issues raised by this phenomenon.]
Another approach to this dramatic interchange between God, Moshe and Aharon can be suggested if we accept the possibility that while God does indeed threaten the entire nation with destruction, He does so with an ulterior motive. Over the course of this cataclysmic episode, God deliberately sets out to educate the Israelites to a lesson critical to their continued national development: the lesson of involvement.
Perhaps, as the confrontation between Moshe and the rebels reaches its climactic moments, the people see themselves as innocent, neutral bystanders. Unwilling to take a stand between the powerful protagonists, the Israelites “hedge their bets”: Let us watch this drama unfold and we will reap the benefit of the results. If Moshe and Aharon emerge victorious, we will remain loyal to them. Nothing will have changed. If, on the other hand, Korach and his followers triumph, they will gain our allegiance.
Perceiving the Israelites’ collective neutrality, God threatens the entire people. “Separate yourself from amid this eida [entire nation],” he commands Moshe and Aharon, “and I shall destroy them in an instant!”
Moshe and Aharon reply, “O God, God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and You be angry with the entire eida?” O Lord, the people are not guilty. They have done nothing wrong.
God responds: “Speak to the eida, saying, ‘Get yourselves up from all around the dwelling places of Korach, Datan and Aviram.’ ” Moshe and Aharon, you are mistaken. At critical times like these there is no place for neutrality. There can be no innocent bystanders. Choices must be made.
Tell the people to vote with their feet. Let them move away from the tents of Korach, Datan, Aviram and their followers; and, by doing so, let them publicly reject the rebels and their cause. The moment has come for the people to decide and, through their decision, determine their own fate.
This approach preserves both linguistic and thematic uniformity over the course of the conversation between God, Moshe and Aharon. The term eida consistently refers to the entire nation as God sensitizes the people to the moral imperative of involvement. God does not “change His mind.” Instead, He instructs the people to change. At critical moments in human experience, He informs them, there are no innocent bystanders. Decisive choices must be made and acted upon….
Points to Ponder
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
This statement, often attributed to the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, has certainly been painfully proven over the long, turbulent course of Jewish history. Throughout the centuries, the horrific evil perpetrated against the Jewish people has been directly enabled by the apathy of those who stood and watched. The silence of the world in the face of the Holocaust is only the most dramatic iteration of this tragically recurring phenomenon.
While, however, we are quick to point to this failing in others, the lesson rooted at the scene of Korach’s trial cuts both ways.
We can justifiably demand the active pursuit of justice from others only if we are willing to engage in that pursuit ourselves. While we, as Jews, clearly have the right to dedicate our greatest energies and efforts towards securing the welfare of our own global Jewish family, we cannot become so insular that the legitimate struggles of others escape our notice and support.
A number of years ago, at the height of the crisis in Macedonia, as the airwaves were filled with images of Albanian refugees languishing in refugee camps, I received an unexpected call from a member of my congregation, himself the son of Holocaust survivors. “My parents were interned,” he said, “in a refugee camp following World War II. My father clearly remembers the kindness of a stranger, a visitor, who brought him a blanket against the cold. In the aftermath of my father’s experiences in the Shoah, that simple act of compassion made such a profound impression that it stayed with him for the rest of his life.
“Given my father’s experiences, I cannot daily watch the pictures of suffering refugees without doing something. Rabbi, would you be willing to join with me on a mission to aid Albanian refugees in a Kosovar refugee camp?”
Not fully believing that my congregant was serious, I agreed, and, to my vast surprise, soon found myself traveling to Skopia, Macedonia, along with over a dozen other volunteers. There, we joined with young Israeli youth leaders in bringing much-needed supplies, programs and human contact to the refugees.
Among the many aspects of that experience that will remain with me always is the memory of a quiet meeting prior to our departure. We sat around a table in the synagogue library as the participants shared their motivations for joining the mission. The remarks of one member of the group were particularly telling: “For years,” she said, “I’ve heard stories of the actions of a select few ‘righteous Gentiles’ who courageously acted on behalf of Jews. Now, I want to be a righteous Jew.”