This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Jonathan Ziring
Thirty-eight years separate Parshat Korach and Parshat Chukat. In the second post-Exodus year, G-d sentenced that entire generation of adult males to death for the sin of the Spies. In Korach, we witness the final rebellions of that first generation – that of Korach and his followers, and the subsequent attack on Moshe for allowing those sinners to die. Finally, after the miracle of the flowering staff of Aharon, the people seem to stop rebelling and accept their tragic fate.
וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר
הֵ֥ן גָּוַ֛עְנוּ אָבַ֖דְנוּ כֻּלָּ֥נוּ אָבָֽדְנוּ׃
כֹּ֣ל הַקָּרֵ֧ב ׀ הַקָּרֵ֛ב אֶל־מִשְׁכַּ֥ן יְהוָ֖ה יָמ֑וּת
הַאִ֥ם תַּ֖מְנוּ לִגְוֺֽעַ׃
(במדבר פרק יז, כז-כח)
And the children of Israel said to Moshe:
“Behold, we have perished! We are lost. We are all lost.’
“Anyone who approaches the Mishkan of G-d will die.’
Have we stopped perishing?” (Bamidbar 17:27-28)
These are the last words we hear from that generation. Parshat Chukat is the story of their children.
However, it feels like we are back at the beginning of the journey. This generation also faces an early water crisis. And the first thing we hear, is
וַיָּ֥רֶב הָעָ֖ם עִם־מֹשֶׁ֑ה
:’וְל֥וּ גָוַ֛עְנוּ בִּגְוַ֥ע אַחֵ֖ינוּ לִפְנֵ֥י ה
The nation fought with Moshe
“if only we would have perished with the perishing of our brothers before
G-d.” (Bamidbar 20:3)
The choice of words implies, as R. Bechaye notes, that they are not simply saying that they would rather have died in any way other than of thirst. Rather, they express the wish to have died with their parents’ generation. Netziv in Haamek Davar argues that they were specific as to their preferred death. “We would rather have had our bodies burned and made into ash like the 250 people” of Korach, than died here.
The Torah is silent about what happens during the thirty-eight years of wandering. We read nothing of the experience of wandering in the desert, neither for those fated to die nor for those destined to survive. For the reader of Chumash, the story of Korach flows almost uninterrupted into the narratives of the final year in the desert.
What is surprising is that at some level this seems true for the Jews as well. When faced with a new crisis, all they can do is wish that they had died at the beginning of the journey. Why? What about that tragic moment still captures their imagination?
Perhaps the key is to examine why they specifically mention the fiery deaths of Korach’s 250 would-be priests, rather than the overall death sentence of their parents’ generation, or the earthquake that swallowed Korach.
Here we can ask a similar question about their parents: why do they despair only after the flowering of the staff of Aharon?
Rabbi Yoni Grossman notes that even after the 250 men died while bringing the ketoret, the people still doubted that the rebellion against Moshe had been wholly unjustified. They accuse Moshe of being responsible for killing the “nation of G-d”, rather than taking their punishments as evidence that G-d had sided with Moshe and Aharon. They refused to accept that there were limitations in spiritual expression. It was only after the miracle of the flowering staff, meant to emphasize that Aharon was the designated priest, that they realized that G-d has indeed placed limitations on who could approach Him and how. Hence, they gained a renewed fear of the holy, of the Mishkan.
R. Yair Kahn argues slightly differently. By arguing that “the whole nation was holy”, Korach’s supporters challenging the integrity of the entire Machaneh – the encampment of the Jews, which was built on the assumption that approach to the Mishkan must be regulated. By arguing that all were equally holy, they called into question the logic of the concentric circles separating the people from G-d. The punishment was that G-d in fact brought His spirit to rest within the camp – but when G-d rests in the camp, there is no way to protect those who are unworthy. The rebels faced the same punishments as Nadav and Avihu, who had also thought they could freely approach G-d.
However, in the terror of facing the divine, there was also comfort. G-d was there, and would remain with them throughout the desert. Though the generation who left Egypt would slowly die, they would do so knowing that G-d was with them. He provided them with food and water. As Moshe notes, when the Jews first complained about the lack of water, they were really wondering “is G-d in our midst or not” (Shemot 17:7). Having food and water was thus a positive answer to that question. Yes, G-d is here, even if he is punishing us.
Now, however, for the first time in almost forty years, there is no water. And the new generation panics – is G-d abandoning us as we enter the land? If He is – we would rather have died “with our brothers.” Those consumed by G-d’s fire at least knew G-d was with them.
The new generation goes through the same struggles as their parents, doubting whether G-d is truly among them. They lack water in a place with a similar name (Masa UMeriva and Mei Meriva) and complain about the manna. They also reach some of the same heights – singing a song to G-d introduced by Az Yashir and miraculously crossing a body of water.
But this time they slowly learn to deal with the notion that while G-d is with them, His presence is not always open. He will provide food for them, but by sending rain, not manna. He will help them defeat their enemies, but only if they fight. No longer will they be instructed to “stay silent” watching while “G-d fights for you against Egypt.”
Success in the war against Amalek was also predicated on the Jews’ participation, but that was an introductory exception in an age of pure miracles. This generation’s primary experience is of relying on G-d, recognizing his presence and participation in human events, while not expecting constant displays of his power. By expecting more natural, and therefore hidden, expressions of G-d’s will, rather than immediate and immanent ones, they learn to appreciate the benefits of a world where G-d leaves more room for humanity.
The struggle is not unique to that generation. Rather, they were the beginning of a new stage in religious life, where we struggle to see G-d’s hand, while celebrating the responsibility that He has left us by making His involvement express itself more naturally.
Rabbi Jonathan Ziring is currently the Sgan Rosh Beit Midrash of the YU-Torah miTzion Beit Midrash Zichron Dov of Toronto.