Keep at a distance from the sinners

Prior to God acting, He commands Moshe and Aharon to separate themselves from the group. Why does it matter?

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg, | updated: 11:29

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The theme of sin dominates the Torah portion of Korach, as we witness multiple instances of God’s threats to destroy the Jewish people. The first warning comes as Korach’s rebellion matures and the entourage accept Moshe’s challenge of bringing the fire-pans (Bamidbar 16:19):

“Korah assembled all the congregation against them at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord appeared before the entire congregation.”

God responds with a clear threat (ibid 20-21):

“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron saying, Dissociate yourselves from this congregation, and I will consume them in an instant.”

Moshe and Aharon respond (ibid 22):

“They fell on their faces and said, "O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, if one man sins, shall You be angry with the whole congregation?"”

After the killing of Korach and his followers, as well as the miracle of Aharon’s staff, the Jewish people do not seem satisfied with the results (ibid 17:6-7)

“The following day, the entire congregation of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron saying, "You have killed the people of the Lord. It came to pass while the congregation were assembled against Moses and Aaron, that they turned to the Tent of Meeting, and behold, the cloud had covered it, and the glory of the Lord appeared."”

Moshe and Aharon approach the Ohel Moed (ibid 8-10):

“Moses and Aaron came to the front of the Tent of Meeting. The Lord spoke to Moses saying:  Stand aside from this congregation, and I shall consume them in an instant." They fell on their faces.”

The Torah continues with God unleashing a plague among the sinners.

In both instances, prior to God acting, He commands Moshe and Aharon to separate themselves from the group, as He planned on annihilating the sinners. The implication is that had Moshe and Aharon remained with the group, they would have perished as well. How could this be a possibility?

Ramban offers a compelling insight. He points out that as God is the Creator, the ability to introduce a punishment that would only kill the perpetrators, while sparing Moshe and Aharon, was not really a “challenge”. In fact, there was a precedent to such power, evidenced in the plague of the first born. Why not perform the miracle in this fashion?

Ramban offers two answers. The first has to do with how God chose to punish Korach and his followers. The earth swallowing some of the sinners, as well as the fire consuming the other sinners, were both set to annihilate whatever was in its path. The only altering of these phenomena would be some type of miracle. The second answer focuses on the honor due to the righteous. God, out of respect to the righteous, would not kill sinners while those righteous are among them.

Both of these answers require greater clarification. When dealing with miracles, why is it a concern to have additional miracles become manifest? Again, as Ramban points out, there is no limit to God’s power. Why not flex that power in this situation? Regarding the second answer, why is it considered an honor to the righteous for them to be removed from the group of sinners?

Ramban’s use of the example of the plagues in Egypt, specifically the final one, serves as the starting point to understanding the answer. God’s expression of Divine Providence must not only be appreciated, but studied and analyzed, as there are many important ideas mankind can glean from these brief moments in history.

During the events of the plagues, God was expressing the idea of His role as Creator. God brought the universe into existence, and He has complete control over it. This idea was critical to both the Jewish people and the world during the period of time of the exodus. The culmination of the process was with the final plague.

Due to the quality of the miracle, an event targeting a specific part of a population sharing an order of birth at one specific moment, demonstrated to all God’s control. With Korach, the objective was quite different. God was to be Judge, His role manifest in the arena of Divine reward and punishment. The Jewish people needed to see what the result of the rebellion would bring. They needed to witness the consequences of their complaints. The focus had to be purely on how God is just, and His justice if perfect.

The miracle, then, was the initiation of a natural event, one which operated along the lines of the laws of nature once brought into existence. If the earth had swallowed everyone but Moshe and Aharon, people would be in awe of the complete control of God over the laws of nature. While this is an important idea, it was not the objective at this moment. The people would have been distracted, their wonderment a barrier to the correct idea. God therefore keeps the message clear.

The same theme is present in the second answer offered by Ramban. The idea of the righteous not being part of the group of sinners played a critical role in ensuring the people understood God’s justice in a clear manner. If Moshe and Aharon had remained part of the group, and they were pardoned from the incoming destruction, people would see Moshe and Aharon being spared the punishment from the group. In other words, the group of people, as a unit, were to be destroyed. God, though, chose to spare some people in this group of sinners.

The righteous would be viewed in the same realm as the sinner, as if their differences were quantitative in nature. Not so, Ramban points out. Instead, the idea of righteousness and sinning must be discrete. Moshe and Aharon were not spared; rather, they were not even in the conversation concerning punishment. The Jewish people needed to observe and internalize the vast gulf separating the two types of people. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that Yehoshua and Calev were portrayed as being spared the punishment to the group of spies; this may allude to the necessity of Moshe “assisting” Yehoshua prior to his mission and Calev’s need to engage in prayer during the mission.)

Ramban is pointing us to a critical idea in the workings of Divine reward and punishment. When we study these events, it behooves us to understand that even in the wonderment of the miracles, unique opportunities open up to understanding God and His relationship to the world.


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