Korach’s rebellion has been put down after he and his supporters are sucked into the bowels of hell, and two-hundred and fifty men who he convinced to offer incense are burnt alive. It’s all over but the shouting.

Unfortunately, the shouting leads to even more bloodshed. Am Yisrael accuse Moshe of setting up Korach, knowing full-well that an unauthorized person who offers incense will die. They tell Moshe [Bemidbar 17:6] “You have killed Hashem’s people!” Hashem is angered and warns Moshe and Aharon to separate themselves from the people, ostensibly because bad things are going to happen. Lo and behold a plague is inflicted on the people. Moshe immediately tells Aharon to take a censer of incense and to run through the camp. Aharon does this, and the plague is stopped. In fact, the plague is stopped twice. First we are told [Bemidbar 17:13] “[Aharon] stood between the dead and the living[1], and the plague ceased.” Two verses later, we are told again that [Bemidbar 17:15] “Aharon returned to Moshe at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and the plague had ceased.” Of course the plague had ceased – it did so two verses earlier.

An explanation from the Seforno opens up a window to a new understanding of Hashem’s response to Korach’s rebellion. It is critical that we realize that Korach’s rebellion was not against Moshe, but ultimately against Hashem, the source of Moshe’s power. As Divine Justice not only punishes the sinners but also redresses their wrongs[2], Korach’s punishment was designed to refute his assertions that all humans are godlike[3], by showing that Hashem, and Hashem alone, has complete mastery over the universe. How was this accomplished?

The rebellion is put down in three phases: [1] Korach and his co-conspirators are killed, [2] the nation is smitten with a plague, and [3] Aharon’s status as the Kohen Gadol is verified when his staff flowers with almonds. I’ve always been puzzled as to why it wasn’t sufficient simply to do away with Korach and his band of merry men. Their demise should have been sufficient proof that crime does not pay, and that the positions of Moshe and Aharon as Leader and Kohen Gadol were Divinely mandated. The fact that Am Yisrael accuses Moshe of Korach’s murder is not surprising, but Hashem’s punishment is. The rule of Divine quid pro quo had already been proven the day before. If the lesson of the day before had not been learnt, why assume that another swat would make the lesson easier to understand?

The Seforno makes two separate comments regarding the plague. The first time “the plague ceased” appears he writes “no new person became ill from the plague.” The second time “the plague ceased” appears he writes “Those who became ill from the plague were cured.” When Korach and his men were killed, death was immediate. Some of the people were struck down with fire and others were sucked into the earth. One second they were alive and one second later they were not. There was no time to assess their lives, to write a will, or to call their children over to see them one last time. Here today, gone tomorrow. Am Yisrael.

The plague was the second phase in the display of Divine might. With “the plague” people didn’t die immediately. They “came down” with the plague. Perhaps it began with a cough or a scratchy throat. Their eyes began to water, they became short of breath, they ran a fever, and then they began to cough up blood.[4] Similarly, after Aharon runs through the camp with the censer, people aren’t cured immediately. Perhaps their fever broke, and they began regaining their strength. The Torah does not state how long the entire episode took. It could have taken days or weeks or even months. This was the innovation of the plague: As opposed to the miraculous deaths of the conspirators in the first phase, the plague operated within the bounds of nature (b’derech ha’teva)[5]. Hashem demonstrated His dominion to Am Yisrael from both within and outside of the bounds of nature.

That would seem to be sufficient. But there was one more thing to prove. There was a third phase. Moshe takes the staffs of the leaders of all of the tribes and locks them in the Mishkan overnight. The next morning he enters the Mishkan and he sees that [Bemidbar 17:23] “Aharon’s staff for the house of Levi had blossomed! It gave forth blossoms, sprouted buds, and produced ripe almonds.” A natural process that should have taken weeks took place over a matter of hours. This miracle was qualitatively different than the two miracles that preceded it. The deaths of Korach and his followers were examples of Hashem working above nature[6]. The plague was an example of Hashem working through nature. The blossoming staff was an example of Hashem modifying the laws of nature, specifically in this case by speeding up natural processes. The message of the three phases is that Hashem created the laws of nature. He can choose to follow them or to disregard them. Or He can choose to change them.

The message of the third phase can help us to understand a comment by the Vilna Gaon on the verse in Isaiah [60:22] “I am Hashem, I will hasten [the redemption] in its time.” The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [98a] notes that this is a contradiction in terms: either the redemption will happen at some pre-determined time or it will be hastened. The Talmud answers that if Am Yisrael merit (through our actions) then the redemption will be hastened. Otherwise it will occur at its pre-destined time. The Vilna Gaon suggests an alternative approach, one that accepts the verse precisely as it is written: When Hashem redeems Am Yisrael (at a date that only He knows) things will transpire extremely quickly.

As they have been transpiring recently. Ask any Israeli ten years ago what the three greatest existential problems facing the State of Israel are today and the answer would have been unanimous: Water, Energy, and Security.

  • For the past twenty years, Israel has been in the throes of a steadily worsening drought. Add to that a condition of the Peace Treaty with Jordan under which 50 million cubic metres of fresh water are provided each year. Only five years ago we were bombarded with television and radio ads telling us to “Conserve every drop,” and that “Israel is drying up.” Today, that is just a bad dream. Over 40% of Israeli fresh water is produced from desalinated sea water. Israel now has a surplus of fresh water, and this is with the desalination plants running at only 70% capacity.
  • Since its inception, Israel was one of the few countries in the Middle East without significant oil deposits. We paid exorbitant prices for electricity and gasoline. We were importing natural gas from Egypt and the pipeline was set regularly ablaze by terrorists. Five years ago huge natural gas deposits were discovered in the Mediterranean Sea. These gas fields have the capability of making Israel not only self-sufficient for the next hundred years, but Israel will soon become a key energy exporter.

As for security, well, that’s business as usual. But there is no reason to believe that this, too, will not change drastically in a short time. The Middle East is becoming more volatile by the minute. Friends with common enemies are emerging. Here in the third phase things happen quickly, taking us inexorably closer and closer to our redemption.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] We will leave this mysterious term for another shiur.

[2] This is called the Principle of Tikkun.

[3] Korach tells Moshe [Bemidbar 17:3] “The entire congregation is holy, and Hashem is within them.”

[4] The Torah does not discuss the symptoms of the plague. I am using poetic license here.

[5] As a side note, it is interesting that incense was used to stop the plague. The power of the incense was supernatural, and yet it was used to cure people who were affected by a natural plague.

[6] One could argue that the “mouth of the earth” that swallowed Korach was a natural earthquake. However, the Malbim, basing himself on the Mishna in Pirkei Avot [5:6], teaches that the “mouth of the earth” was a real mouth that traveled above the ground gobbling up people.