Thursday, June 26, 2008

Between the Living and the Dead:
A Qorahh ShulDrasha

(just imagine you're sitting in shul between Leining and Musaf)

Only a few minutes ago
we read one of the most dramatic verses in the תורה,
if not in all of our Scripture —
the point at which אהרן saves the day.

However, in order to speak about that point,
we have to start again at the beginning of the story.

We just read how קרח was משה and אהרן's cousin,
and he led a rebellion that challenged their authority,
couched in religious language.

קרח and 250 of his co-conspirators
claimed the right to make themselves כהנים
and to replace אהרן as the כהן גדול, the high priest appointed by God.

At the same time, דתן and אבירם,
two other influential men among בני־ישראל,
led a parallel rebellion —
couching their challenge in political terms instead,
and taking aim at משה as the leader of the Israelite Nation.
דתן and אבירם, and their people,
ended up swallowed by the Earth.

But קרח cloaked his rebellion in religious language.
“All members of the nation are holy!” he said,
כל העדה כולם קדושים
‘אהרן was not picked by God —
any of us could do what he does.’

And so משה responded with a challenge of his own.
‘Fine, קרח,’ he said,
‘You think you can do אהרן's job?
Why don't you try it.’
He arranged a showdown between אהרן and קרח,
and קרח's 250 fellow would-be priests —
they would each take a firepan,
and place coals in it,
and offer up קטורת, incense, to God.

And when the aromatic smoke of the incense
rose up to Heaven...
a fire came out from God
and consumed all of them
All that was left was אהרן, untouched,
and 250 used firepans lying among the ashes.

The next day —
the day after fire came from Heaven,
the day after the Earth opened up —
כל עדת בני־ישראל
the entire community of the Israelite Nation
ganged up against משה and אהרן.
“אתם המיתם את עם ה!” they accused them —
“You have killed God's people!”

And then God's anger began to work against them, too.
It spread like a plague through the encampment.
And משה told אהרן to once again pick up his firepan,
and take up some fire and some קטורת,
and offer it
to atone for the people
and their misdirected rage.

And so אהרן ran out into the midst of the people,
and offered the incense —
ויעמד בין המתים ובין החיים
וַתֵּעָצַר המגפה

He stood
between the dead and the living
and the plague

Now, my mind is saturated
with 21st-century ideas
of special effects.
And so I imagine this scene like it were a movie —
אהרן standing there, freeze-frame,
or maybe one of those ultra-slow-motion circling shots like in The Matrix,
and he's holding the firepan and the קטורת.
Before him are people in pain,
Anger of God flashing among them like lightning
or wafting among them like smoke;
while behind him are people in fear,
confused by death,
fresh out of slavery,
still unable to move from throwing tantrums
to taking responsibility.

And there stands אהרן,
the first High Priest of the Israelite Nation —
standing there between the living and the dead —
and the plague stops.

מדרש תנחומא
offers a number of attempts by חז"ל, by our Sages,
to describe this scene.

When אהרן runs out to stop the plague,
when he rushes out into the path of the wrath of God,
he confronts the Angel of Death, they say,
and he tells it,

רבי יצחק describes
how אהרן bear-hugged the Angel of Death
and wrestled it
to a standstill.

רבי יהודה בר סימון
gives not just images
but words
to this confrontation.
When אהרן stands in the way of the Angel of Death
and tells it ‘You cannot pass!’
the Angel responds very simply —
‘Yeah? I'm on a mission from God.”
And אהרן says,
I'm on a mission from משה...
and you know what?
God and משה are hanging out
back at their אהל מועד,
their Tent of Meeting right over there —
let's go ask them
which one of us wins this fight.”

And רבי אבהו
in the name of רבי שמעון בן לקיש
that when אהרן saw
that the Angel of Death refused to yield,
he raised his firepan of incense
like a shield in front of Death
or a mask before his face.

This very same pan of incense
that caused the death of קרח
and his 250 compatriots —
אהרן now used it to save the lives
of all of בני־ישראל.

A number of the medieval commentators —
רש"י, רשב"ם, חזקוני —
all point this out.

It was the very same קטורת.

And קטורת, they say,
is סם. A drug.
And like any drug —
any compound
in certain circumstances it's a סם חיים,
a medicine that preserves life;
and in other circumstances it can be a סם מוות,
a deadly poison.

But it's not just קטורת
that leads this double life;
everything that God gives us in this world
can be used for the purposes God intended —
preserving life,
teaching truth,
performing kindness,
exploring knowledge,
developing a relationship with God —

But everything that God gives us in this world
can also be mis-used
to hurt, to kill,
to spread hate,
to mutilate souls...

We have the medical technology
to literally edit the genetic makeup of bacteria
and rewrite cells to produce life-saving insulin;
on the other hand, we've also seen the artificial harnessing
of horrific diseases
for fighting human wars.

Even תורה can be mis-used against its own holy purpose,
as קרח couched his rebellion in religious language.

And all of us,
at one time or another
have used our power of speech
in ways that caused pain to others
whether intentionally
or by accident.

Each one of us
has their own powers, talents, and gifts
that were given to us by the Creator of Worlds.

So we're living in a state of Exile —
we don't have קטורת anymore,
or כהנים trained to use it.
We can't call upon God
and expect fire from Heaven
to incinerate God's enemies.

But we have strength and will,
we have knowledge and faith,
science and technology,
literature and art —
we have a world that's full
of Divine gifts
and full of creations
that we ourselves made
because we are created in the image of God.

And all of it can be turned into poison.

But that's not what it's here for.
'Cause that's not what we're here for.

Back in the very beginning of the תורה,
at the end of Creation,
God saw everything that God created
and it was all “very good”
but it's our responsibility
to take that potential
which exists within ourselves
and within everything else in the universe
and turn it into reality.

Everything we do
is incense.
Everything we do
is the aromatic smoke of קטורת.

And just like אהרן,
who took his stand
in the midst of the people
with a pan of smoking incense in his hand,
we too can stand
between the living and the dead
and raise the smell
of life and holiness
in the face of despair.


Blogger tnspr569 said...


6/27/2008 8:33 AM  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

This is really good. I'm going to link to it from a couple of places. Thanks for writing it.

6/27/2008 1:43 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

thanks so much!

6/27/2008 2:07 PM  
Blogger rivkayael said...

nicely done!

6/29/2008 10:01 PM  
Blogger Elie said...

Very good post! To add to your point, perhaps Aharon's simply *surviving*, while the other incense-offerers died, wasn't in and of itself enough to constitute a full-fledged victory in the incense competition set up at the beginning of the story. Rather, in order to truly be proven "the one God chose", he had to demonstrate that he could accomplish *positive action* via his incense-offering. On Moshe's advice, he then proceeded to do exactly that - stop a plague using nothing but incense!

6/30/2008 4:33 PM  
Blogger come running said...

So very well said. Thank you.

6/30/2008 9:12 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

thanks, and good point Elie

6/30/2008 10:41 PM  
Anonymous rebecca m said...

wow. chazak.

7/01/2008 7:54 PM  
Blogger J. "יהוא בן יהושפט בן נמשי" Izrael said...

Very good. Especially: "And all of it can be turned into poison.

But that's not what it's here for.
'Cause that's not what we're here for." - Very well said.
I often wonder when I hear about all the things and inventions "that make life better". Better health, higher 'quality of life', longer life expectancy, yet... it's never mentioned why we should live at all... there's no reason or goal...

Sometimes I get so jealous of the amish... and Avigdor Miller (well that always!).

7/07/2008 11:33 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

rebecca m:



i probably shouldn't get into this, but why are you jealous of Avigdor Miller?

7/07/2008 11:41 PM  
Blogger J. "יהוא בן יהושפט בן נמשי" Izrael said...

b/c I'm a hypocrite.

He was very far from any pleasures, didn't eat any starch (and kal vachomer anything not totally necessary) but on shabbos, and slept on a wooden board since adulthood. (I guess I need not explain why I mentioned him not Diogenes...)

I recently read an article about sheperds in Idaho who live in a tiny trailer w/o water, electricity etc, and I got soooo jealous. If I could bring the music, the beer and the tobacco, I'd go today...

7/08/2008 12:54 PM  

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