This week’s story of Korah, in Numbers 16-18, recounts a rebellion that caused a crisis. Korah, a Levite who apparently was deeply jealous of the authority of his fellow Levites Moses and Aaron, leads this rebellion. Joining him are Datan and Aviram of the tribe of Reuben Reuben, Jacobs firstborn who lost national leadership. They attract a following of 250 prominent men described as princes of the community, chosen councilors, famous men. In other words, more would-be leaders. They challenge Moses. Some 2 million other Israelites watch the contest.
Our Torah portion describes a fiery test that puts a violent end to the rebellion. Moses turns the challenge back at Korah, demanding that he and his 250 followers bring fire-pans to the Tent of Meeting, along with Moses and Aaron, to see whose offering will be accepted. Moses also summons Datan and Aviram but they refuse to go, and defy Moses, accusing him of lying about the Land of Milk and Honey and bringing the people out of Egypt to kill us in the desert. At this point G-d tells Moses to clear everyone away from the tents of Datan and Aviram and the other Korahites. Abruptly, the earth opens its mouth and swallows them and their houses…and all their property. Immediately, fire explodes from Heaven and destroys all the rebels at the Tent of Meeting.
End of rebellion? Not quite.
The next morning, Moses and Aaron have to face a shocked and bitter public. You killed G-ds people! Their public cannot accept the thought that Korah & Co. were not just rebelling against Moses but against G-d Himself. As a result of their misplaced sympathies, we read that a plague breaks out. Moses turns to Aaron: Pray and offer incense, he urges. The plague has started! Aaron does not hesitate. He takes the fire-pan and runs out among the people. He atoned for the people; he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague stopped.
14,000 people reportedly died in that plague, plus the 250 followers of Korah. Potentially Aaron saved maybe 2 million more. We dont completely escape the damage we cause with our mistakes. But one mans courage can make a huge difference. Who among us, who among our noisy leaders, can stand between the dead and the living, or between the negative and the positive, to halt the plague of despair?
Aaron does not emerge anywhere near as noble or as inspired or as unique as his brother. But he used his courage and his ingenuity to save his people, more than once. Couldnt we use a man like him today?