Torah is never a fairground ride and the current portion proves it anew every year. Reading it for the first time some thirty years ago, I was especially perturbed by the graphic description of the horror, engulfing the camp.
The earth, swallowing the rebels, the fire, consuming the 250 “men of repute”, then searching through the coals for the copper pans and beating them into the metal sheets, and the plague in the end almost seem too much to bear. This is the ultimate black stripe if I ever saw one. It s as if the text is pushing us forward, testing our ability to bear the hopelessness. How much more we can endure of this horror?
Aaron, standing between the living and dead provides the perfect image for this chapter. The commentators, following Rashi, agree on him physically preventing the angel of death from killing more people. The only optimistic detail of the chapter is the blossoming staff of Aaron’s.
Just like the deaths in this chapter were caused by God’s Presence so is the life is born miraculously from the charred remains of those who were unwise enough to rebel.