When grief turns to blame

A tragedy is not just a moment in time; calamitous and disastrous events reverberate leaving trauma, grief, pain and sadness in the world behind them. As human beings attempt to make sense and live through pain, different reactions can cause further misery, almost creating a series of tragic events. 

Korach’s rebellion and challenge of Moshe and Aharon’s leadership was a tragic moment that spurred a series of catastrophic deaths and plagues.  The main theme of Korach’s argument revolved around his theory of “כל העדה, כלם קדושים” “The entire camp is holy”- rejecting not only the hierarchical order of the camp but also questioning the validity of Moshe’s leadership and his honest transmission of God’s commands. Moshe’s response was to set up a showdown of sorts, where Korach and his 250 supporters could offer K’toret, a sacrificial incense that God only accepts from His chosen ones. The risk with the K’toret is that it is known to have the סם המות, a power to destroy if offered in a wrong way by a person not anointed by God. In fact, it was an untimely and unasked gift of the K’toret that caused the death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. 

The results of this K’toret showdown is an endless series of death and plague. Before the contest even begins, God wants to destroy the entire nation, but Moshe and Aharon intercede, claiming that only the one man who sinned is deserving of death. The ground then opens up and swallows Korach, Datan, and Aviram, and their families. The people who were witnesses to this earthquake flee for their lives, terrified that the earth might swallow them as well. A fire then comes down from the heavens and kills the 250 men who supported Korach and attempted to give the K’toret sacrifice. 

The next day, the people of Israel approach Moshe and Aharon in anger.

וַיִּלֹּ֜נוּ כׇּל־עֲדַ֤ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ מִֽמׇּחֳרָ֔ת עַל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר אַתֶּ֥ם הֲמִתֶּ֖ם אֶת־עַ֥ם ה'” (במדבר יז:ו)

“(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) 

If the ground opening up and the fire coming down had the goal of maintaining trust in Moshe’s leadership, it is with this statement that the death of the 250 plus people proves futile. While to the reader of the Torah the tragic deaths are explained as a direct consequence of the rebellion, the entire Israelite community sees this as a choice that Moshe and Aharon made, one that needlessly killed a large group of men, women, and children. 

God has no sympathy for the people, and immediately warns Moshe and Aharon that a plague is coming to destroy the entirety of the Jewish people. Moshe realizes that he has no time to argue with God or to convince Him otherwise; action is necessary to save as many lives as possible. Moshe commands Aharon to take a K’toret offering and offer up an atonement for the people. Aharon is successful in stopping the plague, but in the meantime, 14,700 people die as a result of this plague, in addition to those who died as a result of Korach’s rebellion. 

In commanding Aharon to give the K’toret in order to stop the deadly plague, Moshe is sympathizing with a group of people that seem to be siding with Korach’s rebellion and a group that was also blaming Moshe and Aharon for causing death to so many people. Furthermore, in a somewhat ironic fashion, Moshe is now proving that he does indeed act independently from God, and is able to stop plagues through an unasked sacrifice. Moshe and God’s wills are not synonymous. How can we understand Moshe’s desire to save the people despite God’s unstoppable anger?

Medieval commentators such as Ramban, Seforno, and Chizkuni sympathize with the people’s claim that the deaths of Korach and his supporters were avoidable. To these commentators, the people simply wanted representation from all of the shvatim in the service of the Mishkan, not just the Levites. Seforno adds that the people specifically blame Moshe for suggesting the test of the K’toret; Moshe could have recommended a different type of test that included a less deadly sacrifice, one that would have proven the point of the chosenness of Aharon but that would have avoided a deadly ending. 

Turning to blame after tragic events is both awful and completely understandable. While the text reveals that God has no patience for the people’s turn towards blame after the death of Korach and his camp, both Moshe, Aharon, and later commentators have sympathetic, perhaps even loving reactions. Instead of showing anger towards the people, or attempting to redirect their blame, Moshe only wants to save their lives to the best of his ability. Aharon, by offering a k’toret of his own to stop the plague, is putting his own life in danger in order to save others. 

Tragedy, plagues, death; these topics destroy order in the world and can unearth unpleasant behaviors in humankind. While the Torah is teaching us to not resort to blame in the face of unexplained (or even explained) death, at the same time, Moshe, and the great Torah sages, demonstrate that we need to have sympathy for those of us who respond to grief with anger and blame. We can not let our desire to know why, to have greater understanding and control, destroy us further. And sometimes that means lending a listening ear, helping each other out, no matter what the reaction.

About the Author
Atara Lindenbaum, comes to Yeshivat Maharat after completing a Masters in Urban Planning and Policy from Hunter College. Throughout Atara's time at Hunter, she researched and wrote about religious issues in urban areas, such as eruv and issues of school funding. Atara worked as a planning consultant to various towns throughout the Hudson Valley. Atara graduated from Stern College with a BA in History, after learning at both Migdal Oz and Midreshet Lindenbaum. Atara currently lives in Riverdale with her husband and three daughters.
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