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The Parasha opens with Korach's uprising against Moses' authority. After failing to persuade Korach and his company to drop their agenda, Korah placed the whole matter in G-d's hands:
If G-d makes something new in the Creation: namely, that the land opens up and swallows [Korach and his company] and their possessions - then you shall know that those men indeed provoked G-d (16:30).
Instead of 'placing them in custody' (c.f. 15:34), Moses appealed to them with an opportunity and a challenge. By asking them to perform the roles of the High Priest with the incense, he was effectively saying to them: 'Here is the service that G-d desires above all others, but it contains the potential of death: Nadav and Avihu died when they brought unauthorized incense'. (Rashi to 16:6, c.f. Lev. 10:1-2) When that failed to persuade them to back down, Moses then brought G-d into the matter: 'Do not turn to their offering…' (16:15), and later on 'that the land opens up and swallows [Korach and his company'] (16:30).
Yet when the laws commanded by G-d were broken, as in the previous Parasha, Moses did just that:
The Israelites were in the desert. They found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day… They (Moses, Aaron, and the entire assembly) placed him in custody, for it was not clear what should happen to him… G-d said to Moses: 'The man shall be put to death… by stoning' (15:32-35).
Unlike with Korach, there was no recorded attempt at persuasion. No mention of what the Sabbath desecrator said in reply, or how he justified what he did. He had defied the fourth commandment: 'he that profanes (the Sabbath) shall be executed'. (Ex. 31:14)
The above may be explained by the idea that it is one thing to impose the Law, and quite another thing to impose oneself. This is expanded below.
Moses could deal with the Sabbath desecrator in an impersonal capacity: from the standpoint of a leader and builder of 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation'. (Ex. 19:6) It was effectively G-d's issue, not Moses'. The Creator appeared to Moses for a prolonged period, and to all the Israelites briefly. They accepted the constitution for being the 'treasured peopled out of all the nations' (Ex. 19:5) unconditionally - 'all that G-d says we shall do, and then we will understand' (Ex. 24:17). That was the basis of their entire society, raison-d'etre, and function at the pinnacle of the entire Creation. And Sabbath desecration was an open challenge to the entire G-d-imposed system - which could spread like wildfire. In case this incident could be distinguished on the facts or the degree of evidence (most commentaries however, explain that the doubt was solely on the method of execution), Moses waited for G-d's approval before the execution took place. At no point could a finger be pointed at Moses.
In contrast, the agenda of Korach and his company did not challenge the Law. On the contrary: 'for all the congregation is holy, and G-d is amongst them'. But they attacked Moses' and Aaron's position within it: 'why do you raise yourselves over the congregation of G-d?' (16:3).
And there is no reference that G-d directly made Moses a leader. He certainly wasn't anointed as one, as Aaron had been (Lev. 8:12). The nearest was: 'Go, I will send you to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt'. (Ex 3:10) That was a task, not an appointment. It was leadership without title. For when Moses performed the G-d-commanded miracles before the Israelite elders in Egypt, he achieved leadership by consent, not imposed from above: 'The people believed: they took heed of G-d's taking notice of the Israelites, and that He saw their afflictions' (Ex. 4:31). And this leadership from the top by consent, without official title, continued up to the time of Korach, who distinguished himself by openly challenging it.
That may explain why Moses 'heard and fell on his face' (16:4). And why he imposed the particular test with the incense.
Moses knew that what Korach attacked was the weakness inherent in his position - who was he, Moses, a leader by popular consent only, to preside over a whole hierarchy which did not give sufficient weight to Korach? Moses knew that G-d had to confirm him and his entire hierarchy in order to enable his leadership to have the credibility to continue. For that reason he gave Korach and his company the challenge with the incense; so that 'the man who G-d chooses - he is the one who is holy' (16:5).
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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