parasha

Korach 5777

Who Will Get the Kehuna (Priesthood)?  Parashat Korach
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

Parashat Korach tells a sad story.  A group of people led by Korach, one of Moshe’s family members, challenged Moshe’s leadership.  It was a popular yet organized uprising that opposed the leader’s authority. 

The central complaint the rebels had about Moshe was about his brother Aharon’s kehuna (priesthood).  Aharon, Moshe’s older brother, was appointed as a kohen in the Mishkan – the temporary temple that accompanied Am Yisrael until the establishment of the Temple on Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  It was not only Aharon who was given the kehuna for all of time, but his sons as well.  During the thousands of years since the Temple was destroyed, there are still several mitzvot and customs that express our treatment of the kohanim, Aharon’s descendants: “Birkat Kohanim”, the priestly blessing in the synagogue; the first aliya to the Torah that is kept for the kohanim, and more.  The uprising against Moshe focused on the unfairness of his brother Aharon’s priesthood.  Why should the priesthood be handed to Moshe’s brother? Why shouldn’t kohanim be chosen from among all the tribes in the nation?
It is important to note that in our modern culture, where we strive for things to be equal, it is easy to identify with the claims of Korach and his followers.  But we must keep in mind that Moshe did not appoint Aharon to the kehuna on his own.  Proof of this is that Moshe’s own sons were not appointed to any position of power or authority.  Aharon’s appointment to the kehuna was the implementation of a direct instruction from God.  Furthermore, we see from several other chapters in the Bible that Aharon was a leader of the nation already back in Egypt, even before Moshe came to liberate the nation.  It was natural that a position such as the kehuna would go to Aharon, irrespective of his brother’s leadership role.
The story of the uprising did not end well.  The rebels were punished by God in a manifest miracle: the earth opened up and some of them sunk into it.  A different segment of the rebels burned in a fire that came out of the Mishkan.  A third group that blamed Moshe and Aharon for the deaths of Korach and his followers died in a plague.  A very discouraging conclusion to the uprising.  But after we recover from the story, we will see that we are still left with the question the rebels posed: Why indeed did Aharon get the kehuna?
Does the Torah provide an answer for this?
Toward the end of the story, as we read about the plague spreading through the camp as a punishment for the uprising, we read about Moshe instructing Aharon to stop the plague:
Moses said to Aaron, "Take the censer and put fire from the altar top into it and put incense. Then take it quickly to the congregation and atone for them..."
Aaron took [it], just as Moses had said, and he ran into the midst of the assembly…He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague ceased.
(Bamidbar 17, 11-13)
Here we see Aharon behaving nobly as he takes on a central role in saving those who wanted him removed from the kehuna.  Aharon stands at the center of the camp and stops the plague that threatened to keep spreading through the nation.
The sages of the midrash enlighten us by pointing out that Aharon’s act does not end there.  They tell us about a dialogue between Moshe and Aharon during those moments when the plague began to spread.
Moses said to Aaron, "Take the censer and put fire from the altar top into it.
Aaron said to him, “My respected Moshe, do you wish to kill me?! My sons burned because they sacrificed before the Blessed be He a simple sacrifice, and you tell me ‘take the censor’?! My sons brought a strange fire into the Mishkan and were burned, and I will take a sacred fire out and I will die or be burned?!”
Moshe said to him, “Go and do it quickly because while you are talking to me they are dying!”
When Aharon heard this he said, “Even if I die for Israel, it is worth it!” Immediately – “Aharon took…”
(Yalkut Shimoni on Parashat Tzav)
Aharon is revealed to us here as a bereaved father who lost his sons in a traumatic incident.  On the day the Mishkan was established, his two older sons – Nadav and Avihu – entered the Mishkan and sacrificed incense that God had not commanded them to burn, and they died immediately.  Aharon hears Moshe’s instructions and understands that his fate will be similar.  He will burn incense that God did not instruct him to burn and will die immediately.  Due to this fear, he refuses to fulfill the instruction.  But Moshe urges him on angrily –While you are arguing with me, they are dying!
Moshe did not correct him.  He did not tell him that this incense he is about to burn is not going to lead to his death.  He clarifies the situation: The plague is spreading and people are dying!
Aharon made a decision.  He thought he was committing an irreversible suicidal act.  But he was willing to sacrifice his own life to save the lives of so many others.  He ran into crowd, into the plague, and – to his thinking – to his certain death.  With this heroism, Aharon proved that he is worthy of being a kohen; worthy of serving God and the nation in the Temple.
The sages of the Mishna refer to Aharon as someone who “loves the people”.  Only someone like this who is willing to give his life for another can be appointed to the kehuna.

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