By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
July 4, 2003
The rebellion of Korach ended with devastating results. Korach
and his followers were swallowed up by the earth, and the 250 who offered
incense were consumed by fire. Those Israelites who continued to complain that
Moshe and Aharon were responsible for the deaths of holy people were stricken
with a plague, and more than 14,000 died.
Then, as further proof of Aharon’s greatness and confirmation that he is
Hashem’s choice, from all the princes’ staffs, Hashem makes Aharon’s staff
bloom and produce almonds miraculously. This demonstrated that Hashem has
chosen the tribe of Levi and Aharon himself to perform all the services in the
Mishkan. The people react to these events as follows:
And the Children of Israel said to Moshe, saying: “Behold, we perished
(GAVA’NU), we are lost (AVADNU), all of us are lost! Whoever approaches closer
(KOL HA’KAREV HA’KAREV) to the Mishkan of Hashem will die. Will we ever stop (TAMNU)
to perish?” (Bamidbar 17:27-28).
What follows next is a series of mitzvot that highlight the special duties,
privileges and challenges of the tribe of Levi (18:1-32). But, what do the
Israelites mean by their exclamations? Have they accepted Hashem’s decision,
or are they persisting in their rebellion? Why this outburst after witnessing
the miraculous blossoming of Aharon’s staff? Is it more frightening than the
Divine punishments that preceded it? Also, why do they repeat AVADNU and
“Behold, we perished (GAVA’NU), we are lost (AVADNU), all of us are lost!”
Rashbam says that the people saw that many of them perished in the punishments
following Korach’s rebellion, and they continue to be destroyed. There is
every reason to assume that, as they commit further transgressions against
Hashem’s Sanctuary, they will suffer further. AVADNU refers to the
disappearance of the leaders of the rebellion:
And they were lost (VAYOVEDU) from the midst of the congregation (16:33)
Ha’amek Davar (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin) adds that “all of us are
lost” refers to the 14,000 victims of the plague. Throughout, the people
grieve over the recent losses, and express anxiety for the future.
This anxiety is further highlighted in the following verse:
Whoever approaches closer (KOL HA’KAREV HA’KAREV) to the Mishkan of Hashem
will die. (17:28)
Rashi understands this as referring to one who, through error, approaches too
“We are not able to be careful in this. All of us are permitted to enter the
courtyard of the Tent of Meeting, and one who draws closer than his friend and
enters the tent will die.”
The commandments that follow, therefore, place the responsibility for ensuring
appropriate behavior preventing such errors in the Mishkan, upon the Leviim.
Rashbam, on the other hand, sees the people’s exclamation as a turning point
in the Mishkan service. Until now, he says the entire people of Israel might
perform the service in the Mishkan if they so desired; the Levites do so “full
time.” The only people who were disqualified were those with physical
blemishes (Vayikra 21:16-24) and those who are defiled (Vayikra 22:1-3). At
this point, the people express their anxiety that perhaps they should not all
be permitted to serve, and Hashem now gives them the command that prohibits
And a stranger shall not approach to you. …and the stranger who approaches
will die (Bamidbar 18:4,7).
The people now understand Hashem’s wisdom in designating the tribe of Levi for
Ha’amek Davar explains the repetition KOL HA’KAREV HA’KAREV with reference to
the cantillation sign (“p’sik”) that separates the repeated word: Whoever
wishes to come close – meaning, whoever is internally and lovingly motivated
to rise in sanctity – does so by approaching the Mishkan of Hashem, because
that is the place of intense union with Him. The love of Hashem is so powerful
that it breaks through all boundaries. But then there is great danger for the
souls of those who are not ready for what Ha’amek Davar calls “this wondrous
pleasure; and so none of us can be sure of his life”. It therefore falls to
Aharon and the Leviim to protect the people from their own zeal.
…will we ever stop (TAMNU) to perish (LIVGO’A)? (v.28)
Rashi understands both TAMNU and LIGVO’A as terms for death, as if it said,
“perhaps we have been given up for dying.”
Without the needed protection, and since everyone can err; perhaps we will all
meet our deaths!
Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, seems to read their words as a plea:
“Will we ever stop perishing?”
Is there no way to stop the people from coming to the same end as Korach and
his supporters? Hashem’s answer comes in the form of the mitzvot of Aharon.
Chatam Sofer (R. Moshe Sofer) understands TAMNU as “we end,” and so renders
the people’s cry as: Will we end by dying? – Do we have no higher purpose, no
more transient expectation, than to come to the end of our physical life, no
different than animal life ? Can we not expect that our service to Hashem, our
toiling in Torah, will raise us to a more lofty existence? This, particularly
if we are motivated by our desire to be close to Hashem. The Leviim therefore
enable the people to serve Hashem and find their life’s purpose.
It remains surprising that this outburst comes from the people, not after the
devastation of Korach and the plague, but after the blooming of Aharon’s
staff. Rashi explains that the people are so worried precisely because the
staff developed almonds:
“And why almonds? It is the fruit that is the fastest to develop of all
fruits. So, one who disputes the priesthood will be punished quickly…”
Ibn Ezra adds that the very word for almond, SHAKED also means “hasten”, as in
the prophesy of Yirmiyahu (1:12):
“Because I will hasten (SHOKED) my word to perform it.”
And Aharon’s staff remained in the Mishkan as a poignant reminder.
Punishment from Hashem is cataclysmic, yet its effects are ultimately
transitory. Ironically, only the flower and fruit, the productive and
uninterrupted power of Hashem, has the desired impact upon the people. It is
the awareness of Hashem’s constant involvement in the world that helps us
realize how best to serve Him.
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
Korach's rebellion erupts against the background of the Jews being told
that their generation will not enter the Land of Israel. Korach's
co-conspirators, Datan and Aviram, play on the people's sense of despair.
They use the term aliyah, ascent, both in the sense of "going up" to the
Land of Israel - an ascent denied to them - and as a synonym for appearing
before Moses and accepting his authority - an aliyah they refuse to make.
"And Moses sent to call Datan and Aviram the sons of Eliav but they said:
'We will not ascend - lo na'aleh. Is it a small thing that you have
brought us up - he'elitanu - out of a land flowing with milk and honey to
kill us in the wilderness?...You have not brought us into a land flowing
with milk and honey... we will not ascend - lo na'aleh (Bamidbar
The existential need of the Jewish People outside of Israel to dream
expectantly of a return to the Land, to live in the belief that "we will
ascend," "na'aleh," is a permanent one. Rav Kook (Orot, p.9) teaches that
"it is only the anticipation of redemption that preserves Judaism in Exile
while Judaism in the Land of Israel is the redemption itself."
Rabbi Jonathan Blass
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Tel: 972-2-566-1181 ext. 320