Angel of Death II


Moshe Ben–Chaim



Jessie: In Parshas Chukas, (Numbers, 20:29) it says the entire congregation saw that Aaron had died. Rashi comments: “When they saw Moses and Elazar came down and Aaron didn’t come down they said, “Where is he?” He said, “He died.” The Jews said, “Is it possible that he who stood against the Angel of Death and stopped the plague (in Korach) can be defeated by the Angel of Death?” Immediately Moshe asked for mercy and the ministering angels showed them Aaron lying dead in a bed. They saw and they believed.”

Questions: What is this Medrash trying to teach us? Why would they not believe that Aaron had died? Why did this sort of vision demonstrate that he did die? Why did Moshe need mercy for this demonstration?


Mesora:  As always, good questions, and succinct Jess. I believe the first thing we must posit is this: when Aaron stayed the plague, it was necessary to teach the Jews that Aaron and Moses were not murderers. However, this miracle of Aaron standing between the dead and the living during that plague was in part, incorrectly interpreted: that Aaron “the man” possessed some greater power over death. (The Jews saw Aaron standing between the living and dead, and no more people died) Nonetheless, God enacted this miraculous feat were Aaron stayed the plague, so as to correct the false notion harbored by the Jews that Aaron and Moses were murderers, as the Jews formerly accused. So God thereby corrected the false notion of the Jews, that Aaron and Moses killed the “just” congregation of Korach. In fact, Korach’s congregation was evil. So Aaron and Moses were not killers of “innocents”. Aaron demonstrated their innocence by saving the Jews with the incense. However, this act to which you refer, was perceived as Aaron being “above death”, since he stayed the plague of death.


Now, as Moses and Elazar descended the mountain, without Aaron, the Jews were confused and thought, “Aaron beat death in the previous plague, how can he possibly die?” Moses too realized the problem, and saw a solution: beseeching God to intervene, through prayer, but not as you may think. God agreed and responded. The only solution, as Moses anticipated, was that Moses help demonstrate that Aaron had no power over life and death. Perhaps, since Aaron himself was not the cause of the corrupted, immortal reputation maintained by the Jews, hence, he could not be the one who might correct this reputation. Meaning, in order that the Jews realize that Aaron was not immortal, the very Source of life – God – must step in to teach that man is not inherently immortal, and man (Aaron) possesses no power over life at all. When the Jews realized that Moses was praying to God to correct their false, immortal view of Aaron, they now realized from where their wrong assumption of Aaron’s immortality originated: it was from “God’s” miracle of staying the plague, Aaron was a bystander simply following orders. The Jews either see Moses pray to God, or better, they see God somehow unveil Aaron’s true mortality, which results in the Jews’ realization that it was not Aaron who had any power whatsoever over the lives of the saved Jews, but it was God all along. Thus, this Midrash teaches that Moses’ prayed to God, conveying that Moses knew that God was the cause of the Jews’ salvation, and not Aaron. The Jews, by witnessing Moses’ prayer, or God’s intervention, were enabled to rid themselves of their false assumption and accept Aaron’s mortality, as if the “ministering angels showed them Aaron dead on a bed.”


Nonetheless, the Jews still required Divine assistance to return to the correct view. God intervened and somehow allowed this concept of Aaron’s mortality to penetrate these misled Jews. I don’t believe they actually “saw a bed with Aaron lying in it”. This means they were somehow relieved of their previous, erroneous notion of Aaron’s immortality. Somehow, God addressed this: God’s “ministering angels” conveys this. It means that something other than the actions of the Jews themselves was required to correct the false notion of Aaron’s immortality. In contrast to other cases where prayer is an act of ultimate desperation and beseeching God to intercede, perhaps here, Moses prayer may very well have been a demonstration that God is the source of life, not Aaron. The very “act” of Moses praying to God was what was required to dispel the false idea of Aaron’s immortality, and not so much performed for the need of a response from God.


A similar case is as follows. One angel is “punished” as he ascribed the miraculous phenomena of overturning Sodom to himself, and not to God. The Rabbis wrote that statement to teach a problem with ascribing miracles to anything but God. I would explain the two Rashis (Gen. 19:22) as teaching us exactly that:


(Gen. 19:22) “(The angel said to Lot) Hurry, escape there, for cannot do anything (destroy Sodom) until you come there.”


Rashi 1: “This is the punishment of the angels, on account that they said ‘for we are destroying (Sodom)’, and they ascribed the matter (destroying Sodom) to themselves. Therefore, they did not move from there until they righted, and they said the matter was not under their control.”

Rashi 2: “Two angles are not sent for one mission.” 


What does Rashi 1 teach? The angels didn’t truly talk, ascribing phenomena to themselves. However, the Rabbis have license to write these Midrashim – stories – teaching us fundamentals. Perhaps here, the Rabbis desired to teach a new lesson; that God alone caused the destruction of Sodom. Somehow, there was room for misunderstanding the cause of Sodom’s destruction. An angel – a “force of nature” like fire – will sometimes appear as a purely natural event. But as Rashi said, the punishment of that angel was that “it didn’t move from that place until it admitted that it had no ability of its own to perform the destruction”. The angel – the destructive force that overturned Sodom – didn’t necessarily talk. When the angels said, “we are destroying Sodom”, this means that the force of nature causing the destruction, seemed natural, and not due to God. But this idea would forfeit the entire lesson, that God punishes the wicked!  Nature (angels) appeared to “claim sole responsibility” for Sodom’s destruction, with no will of God. Therefore, its appearance required correction, in some manner. There was something about what took place in Sodom, that onlookers might ascribe a natural disaster to Sodom, thereby forfeiting the lesson that it was in reality, a Godly punishment. Hence, no deterrent for future generations would exist. Angels, or natural forces, can only function by the will of God, and not independently.


The “natural” appearance of Sodom’s destruction had to somehow be corrected so a warning to others and subsequent generations would exist. The fact that the angels “remained until they corrected themselves”, means that within this disaster ordained by God, there was some element which clearly indicated that it was of Divine origin. What that was, I do not know, but it was part of the disastrous process, as it was the angels – these forces – which also corrected the previous error.


Through these Midrashim, the Rabbis teach that although a false idea could be perceived in both – Sodom’s destruction, and Aaron’s salvation – God insured that both false ideas were corrected.


I would add that regarding Aaron, the people had to first see Moses praying to God, thereby priming their minds to accept a subsequent, metaphysical lesson (Aaron on the bed). Without the first step of the Jews entertaining the idea that Aaron was in fact mortal, perhaps the Jews would not have related to the subsequent, metaphysical lesson.


In turn this teaches that when God educates man, as effectuated via the vision of Aaron dead on the bed, God works within the confines of man’s mind, and does not force upon man that which he is yet unready to accept.