To Stop this Plague, Avoid Social Distancing

I recently had the fortune of finishing two areas of learning right around the same time with my 8th graders – Parshat Korach and the book of Shmuel Bet. Much to our surprise, we discovered that the two sections, separated though they are by many miles in the Tanach, have surprisingly similar endings. Let’s explore these two endings and what their symbiosis portends for us as thinking religious individuals.

By the end of the main story of Parshat Korach, the ringleader Korach, his buddies Datan and Aviram, and their families are underground. Korach’s band of 250 rebels has been burned in a fire while they were bringing incense. The Jews are scared, accusing Moshe and Aharon of killing the nation of Hashem. Moshe and Aharon come to the Ohel Moed (the Tent of Meeting), which they find covered by the Cloud of Glory; trouble is in the air. Hashem threatens to destroy the Jewish people in an instant. Then,

ספר במדבר פרק יז פסוקים ט-יא
פסוק ט – וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
:פסוק י – הֵרֹ֗מּוּ מִתּוֹךְ֙ הָעֵדָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את וַאֲכַלֶּ֥ה אֹתָ֖ם כְּרָ֑גַע וַֽיִּפְּל֖וּ עַל־פְּנֵיהֶֽם
פסוק יא – וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן קַ֣ח אֶת־הַ֠מַּחְתָּה וְתֶן־עָלֶ֨יהָ אֵ֜שׁ מֵעַ֤ל הַמִּזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ וְשִׂ֣ים קְטֹ֔רֶת וְהוֹלֵ֧ךְ מְהֵרָ֛ה אֶל־הָעֵדָ֖ה וְכַפֵּ֣ר עֲלֵיהֶ֑ם כִּֽי־יָצָ֥א הַקֶּ֛צֶף מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה הֵחֵ֥ל הַנָּֽגֶף׃

(17:9) Hashem said to Moshe as follows,
(17:10) “Remove yourself from this group, and I will destroy them in an instant!” They fell on their faces.
(17:11) Moshe said to Aharon, “Take the stick, and put fire on it from on the Mizbeach (altar), and put incense in it. Then go quickly to the group and atone for them, because the fury has gone forth from before Hashem – the plague has begun!”

This is a very unusual and specific set of instructions for Moshe to come up with, apparently on his own. How did he know that this exact formula would check the plague? We will return to that, but first let’s finish the story:

ספר במדבר פרק יז פסוקים יב-טו
פסוק יב וַיִּקַּ֨ח אַהֲרֹ֜ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֶּ֣ר מֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיָּ֙רָץ֙ אֶל־תּ֣וֹך הַקָּהָ֔ל וְהִנֵּ֛ה הֵחֵ֥ל הַנֶּ֖גֶף בָּעָ֑ם וַיִּתֵּן֙ אֶֽת־הַקְּטֹ֔רֶת וַיְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־הָעָֽם׃
פסוק יגוַיַּעֲמֹ֥ד בֵּֽין־הַמֵּתִ֖ים וּבֵ֣ין הַֽחַיִּ֑ים וַתֵּעָצַ֖ר הַמַּגֵּפָֽה׃
פסוק יד וַיִּהְי֗וּ הַמֵּתִים֙ בַּמַּגֵּפָ֔ה אַרְבָּעָ֥ה עָשָׂ֛ר אֶ֖לֶף וּשְׁבַ֣ע מֵא֑וֹת מִלְּבַ֥ד הַמֵּתִ֖ים עַל־דְּבַר־קֹֽרַח׃
פסוק טו וַיָּ֤שָׁב אַהֲרֹן֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶל־פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וְהַמַּגֵּפָ֖ה נֶעֱצָֽרָה׃

(17:12) Aharon took, as Moshe had spoken, and he ran into the midst of the congregation, and indeed – the plague had begun. He took the incense, and he atoned for the nation.
(17:13) He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague had stopped.
(17:14) It happened that the dead in the plague totaled 14,700, besides the dead in the saga of Korach.
(17:15) Aharon returned to Moshe, to the opening of the Tent of Meeting, and the plague had stopped.

Clearly, Moshe’s idea worked. But why did it work? What elements of this formula marked it for success – the stick, the fire (at least in the command if not in the execution), the incense, the running into the group, the atoning?

Keep these elements in mind as we see part of the last chapter (24) of Shmuel Bet. In this final chapter, Hashem is very angry at the Jews, but it is not clear why. The commentators suggest that it was retribution for people’s support of the rebellion of Sheva ben Bichri (see Perek 20) (Abarbanel), or for their not appearing interested in building the Beit Hamikdash as it stays in its temporary mobile lodging throughout this time period (Midrash brought by Ramban in Bamidbar 16:21). In any event, Hashem leads Dovid into a trap, giving him the idea to take an unauthorized census of the Jews, which moves forward despite Yoav’s objection. Immediately after the census is done and recorded, Dovid realizes his mistake. The prophet Gad reports to Dovid that Hashem has given him three choices of punishment: seven years of famine (according to Divrei Hayamim, three years), three months of enemy attack, or three days of pestilence. Dovid chooses the final option.

And then …

ספר שמואל ב פרק כד
פסוק טו – וַיִּתֵּ֨ן יְהוָ֥ה דֶּ֙בֶר֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מֵהַבֹּ֖קֶר וְעַד־עֵ֣ת מוֹעֵ֑ד וַיָּ֣מָת מִן־הָעָ֗ם מִדָּן֙ וְעַד־בְּאֵ֣ר שֶׁ֔בַע שִׁבְעִ֥ים אֶ֖לֶף אִֽישׁ׃

פסוק טז – וַיִּשְׁלַח֩ יָד֨וֹ הַמַּלְאָ֥ךְ יְרֽוּשָׁלִַם֮ לְשַׁחֲתָהּ֒ וַיִּנָּ֤חֶם יְהוָה֙ אֶל־הָ֣רָעָ֔ה וַ֠יֹּאמֶר לַמַּלְאָ֞ךְ הַמַּשְׁחִ֤ית בָּעָם֙ רַ֔ב עַתָּ֖ה הֶ֣רֶף יָדֶ֑ךָ וּמַלְאַ֤ךְ יְהוָה֙ הָיָ֔ה עִם־גֹּ֖רֶן הָאֲרַ֥וְנָה הַיְבֻסִֽי׃ (ס)
פסוק יז – וַיֹּאמֶר֩ דָּוִ֨ד אֶל־יְהוָ֜ה בִּרְאֹת֣וֹ אֶֽת־הַמַּלְאָ֣ךְ הַמַּכֶּ֣ה בָעָ֗ם וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֤י חָטָ֙אתִי֙ וְאָנֹכִ֣י הֶעֱוֵ֔יתִי וְאֵ֥לֶּה הַצֹּ֖אן מֶ֣ה עָשׂ֑וּ תְּהִ֨י נָ֥א יָדְךָ֛ בִּ֖י וּבְבֵ֥ית אָבִֽי׃ (פ)
פסוק יח – וַיָּבֹא־גָ֥ד אֶל־דָּוִ֖ד בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֗וֹ עֲלֵה֙ הָקֵ֤ם לַֽיהוָה֙ מִזְבֵּ֔חַ בְּגֹ֖רֶן אֲרַ֥וְנָה הַיְבֻסִֽי׃
פסוק יט – וַיַּ֤עַל דָּוִד֙ כִּדְבַר־גָּ֔ד כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָֽה׃
פסוק כ – וַיַּשְׁקֵ֣ף אֲרַ֗וְנָה וַיַּ֤רְא אֶת־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ וְאֶת־עֲבָדָ֔יו עֹבְרִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיֵּצֵ֣א אֲרַ֔וְנָה וַיִּשְׁתַּ֧חוּ לַמֶּ֛לֶךְ אַפָּ֖יו אָֽרְצָה׃
פסוק כא – וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲרַ֔וְנָה מַדּ֛וּעַ בָּ֥א אֲדֹנִֽי־הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ אֶל־עַבְדּ֑וֹ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר דָּוִ֜ד לִקְנ֧וֹת מֵעִמְּךָ֣ אֶת־הַגֹּ֗רֶן לִבְנ֤וֹת מִזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה וְתֵעָצַ֥ר הַמַּגֵּפָ֖ה מֵעַ֥ל הָעָֽם׃
פסוק כב – וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲרַ֙וְנָה֙ אֶל־דָּוִ֔ד יִקַּ֥ח וְיַ֛עַל אֲדֹנִ֥י הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ הַטּ֣וֹב בְּעֵינָ֑יו רְאֵה֙ הַבָּקָ֣ר לָעֹלָ֔ה וְהַמֹּרִגִּ֛ים וּכְלֵ֥י הַבָּקָ֖ר לָעֵצִֽים׃

פסוק כד – וַיֹּ֨אמֶר הַמֶּ֜לֶךְ אֶל־אֲרַ֗וְנָה לֹ֚א כִּֽי־קָנ֨וֹ אֶקְנֶ֤ה מֵאֽוֹתְךָ֙ בִּמְחִ֔יר וְלֹ֧א אַעֲלֶ֛ה לַיהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהַ֖י עֹל֣וֹת חִנָּ֑ם וַיִּ֨קֶן דָּוִ֤ד אֶת־הַגֹּ֙רֶן֙ וְאֶת־הַבָּקָ֔ר בְּכֶ֖סֶף שְׁקָלִ֥ים חֲמִשִּֽׁים׃
פסוק כה – וַיִּבֶן֩ שָׁ֨ם דָּוִ֤ד מִזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה וַיַּ֥עַל עֹל֖וֹת וּשְׁלָמִ֑ים וַיֵּעָתֵ֤ר יְהוָה֙ לָאָ֔רֶץ וַתֵּעָצַ֥ר הַמַּגֵּפָ֖ה מֵעַ֥ל יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

(24:15) Hashem put a pestilence on the Jewish people from morning until evening, and out of the whole nation, from Dan to Be’er Sheva, 77,000 died.
(24:16) The angel lifted his hand toward Yerushalayim to destroy it. Hashem reconsidered the evil, and he said to the angel, “You have destroyed many among the nation. Now, stay your hand.” The angel of Hashem at that time was at the threshing floor of Aravnah the Yevusi.
(24:17) Dovid said to Hashem when he saw the angel striking the nation, “I see that I have sinned and caused mischief. But these sheep – what did they do? Your hand should be against me and my father’s house.”
(24:18) Gad came to Dovid on that day, and said to him, “Go up! Raise up for Hashem a Mizbeach at the threshing floor of Aravnah the Yevusi.”
(24:19) Dovid went up as Gad had spoken, as Hashem had commanded.
(24:20) Aravnah looked out and saw the king and his servants passing near him, and Aravnah went out and bowed to the king, with his face to the ground.
(24:21) Aravnah said, “Why did my master, the king, come to his servant?” Dovid said, “To purchase from you the threshing floor to build a Mizbeach for Hashem, so the pestilence will cease from the people.”
(24:22) Aravnah said to Dovid, “Take it, and bring up whatever is good in the king’s eyes. See – here is cattle for an offering, and threshing implements and tools for the wood” …
(24:24) The king said to Aravnah, “No, I will buy it from you for a price, and I will not offer up to Hashem offerings for free.” Dovid paid for the threshing floor and the cattle, with money, 50 Shekels.
(24:25) Dovid built a Mizbeach for Hashem, and he offered up elevation-offerings and peace-offerings. Hashem responded to the land, and the plague ended from the Jews.

What an evocative and chilling ending to the book of Shmuel Bet. Aravnah was the king of the Yevusi nation. His threshing floor becomes the site of the Beit Hamikdash. The compassion and magnanimity of this non-Jewish king is inspiring, but Dovid refuses his request and instead insists on paying for the threshing floor himself, evoking Avraham’s purchase of Ma’arat Hamachpeilah from Efron Hachiti. Yet there are even more parallels to the story of Aharon stopping the plague in Parshat Korach. In both stories, Hashem threatens to cause mass death by a plague because the people have been inattentive to their houses of worship or insensitive to its leaders. In both stories, Hashem holds back from bringing the plague to its full effect when a prophet tells another leader to intervene using the tools of worship—incense or offerings—at which point the plague is immediately checked.

How did Gad and Moshe know how to bring a premature end to the plague? A close read shows that in both cases, the plague is stopped only after the leader has taken personal responsibility for the mistakes of the people. The action of bringing incense or an offering (Bamidbar 9:11-12 and Shmuel Bet 24:25) is only meaningful insofar as the leader has come to a point of accepting upon himself the mistakes of the nation he is serving. In Aharon’s case, this realization came in two forms: “וַיְכַפֵּר עַל הָעָם,” “he atoned for the people” (9:12); and “וַיַּעֲמֹ֥ד בֵּֽין הַמֵּתִים וּבֵין הַֽחַיִּים,” “he stood between the dead and the living.” In Dovid’s case, he expressed contrition: ”הִנֵּה אָנֹכִ֤י חָטָאתִי וְאָנֹכִ֣י הֶעֱוֵיתִי וְאֵ֥לֶּה הַצֹּאן מֶה עָשׂ֑וּ תְּהִי נָא יָדְךָ בִּ֖י וּבְבֵ֥ית אָבִֽי,” “I see that I have sinned and caused mischief. But these sheep—what did they do? Your hand should be against me and my father’s house.” Each in his respective story, Moshe or Dovid must take his share of the blame for the downfall of the nation which they lead.

We find a similar phenomenon after the Golden Calf and spies incidents, when Hashem tells Moshe of his plans to destroy the nation, but acquiesces when Moshe stands in on their behalf. Why the charade? If Hashem wants to destroy them, how do the pleas of Moshe have such a strong, overriding effect? Perhaps it is a test of Moshe’s faith in the nation. If the nation and its preservation are important to Moshe, then the nation has a leader and a reason to be saved. If not, there is no point in keeping them around. At the same time, the fact that Moshe needs to plead for the nation and reassert his willingness to lead them is a testament to the failure of leadership which got them into this mess. That is why Aharon and Dovid each need to recognize their own moral failings and accept the nation’s problems on their own shoulders before they can save the nation; without that acceptance, the nation has no advocate, no leader, and no reason to be saved. These are the moments that leaders are made.

The second parallel between the two stories is that the tide begins to turn only when the leader physically moves to the site of the problem (Shmuel Bet 24:18), literally putting their own lives at risk to show their solidarity with the people. In Aharon’s case, he is told toהוֹלֵךְ מְהֵרָה אֶל הָעֵדָה, go quickly to the group (Bamidbar 17:11)and so indeed וַיָּרָץ אֶל תּוֹך הַקָּהָל, he ran to the midst of the congregation (17:12). Logically, that is the last place he would want to go. He is already at the Ohel Moed; can’t he offer the incense right where he already is? Similarly, when Aharon “stands between the dead and the living” (וַיַּעֲמֹ֥ד בֵּֽין הַמֵּתִ֖ים וּבֵ֣ין הַֽחַיִּ֑ים””) (17:13), Rashbam understands this to mean that Aharon is forming a human shield to stop the plague from spreading to those still alive, as if to say, “If you are going to kill them, you are going to have to kill me first.” Sforno understands this alacrity by Aharon to provide a deliberate counterweight to the way in which Aharon and Moshe have been told to separate themselves from the group, including just recently in Pasuk 10 (“הֵרֹמּוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת,” “separate yourselves from this large group”). In Dovid’s case, Gad tells him to “עֲלֵה הָקֵ֤ם לַֽיהוָה מִזְבֵּח,” “go up and build a Mizbeach for Hashem” (Shmuel Bet 24:18) at the exact location where the angel is standing with his hand outstretched over Yerushalayim, again the most dangerous place he could be at that time. And yet, for a true leader, it is the only place he would want to be.

A leader’s ability to recognize himself as a part of the people rather than apart from the people is critical to the reconsideration moment by Hashem in each story. At first glance, this second aspect of leadership, this show of solidarity and populism, is an opposite impulse from the first aspect, the recognition of one’s role as a leader uniquely worthy of taking blame on oneself. Yet both aspects are critical, because the nation will only accept the leader’s contrition and self-effacement as sincere if he is willing to literally walk into the fire to save the very nation for which he is pleading. Talk is cheap. Anyone can mouth empty words about the importance of the nation from the sidelines. Moshe and Dovid need to be reminded that only by rolling up your sleeves and jumping into the fire, only by walking straight up to the angel of death himself, can they become the empathic leader that they need to become and that the people deserve for them to be.


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