Aaron Seized the Angel of Death
In Parshas Korach (Numbers, 17:13) Rashi states an amazing story of how Aaron “seized the Angel of Death against its will”. In order to understand this metaphor, we must first understand the events immediately prior.
God had wiped out Korach and his rebellion. On the morrow, the Jewish people said the following (Numbers, 17:6), “You (Moses and Aaron) have killed the people of God”, referring to Korach and his assembly. Evidently, the Jews could not make such a statement the same day as God’s destruction of the Korach assembly, perhaps because the Jews were too frightened at the moment. But as their terror waned, they mustered the courage to speak their true feelings on the next day.
What they said were actually two accusations: 1) Moses and Aaron are murderers, and 2) those who were murdered are God’s people. The Jews made two errors, and God addressed both.
The method God used to correct their second error was to demonstrate through a miracle that Aaron in fact was following God and Korach and his group were not: detached wood – the staff – miraculously continued its growth, and blossomed almonds. By Aaron’s rod blossoming, this showed whom God favored, and to whom He related – even via a miracle. Now the Jew’s false opinion that Korach followed God was corrected, as it was Aaron’s staff, which God selected, and not Korach’s.
But how did Moses correct the people’s false opinion, that he and Aaron were murderers? How did the incense, which Moses instructed Aaron to bring correct the problem, and stay off the plague, which God sent to kill the Jews? What Moses commanded Aaron to do was to take the incense, and stand between the living and the dead during the plague, which only temporarily stopped the plague. It was not until Aaron returned back to Moses that God completely halted the plague. So what does Aaron standing there accomplish, that it stopped the plague temporarily? Additionally, what does his return to Moses and God at the Tent of Meeting do? This is where the Rashi comes in:
“Aaron seized the angel of death against its will. The angel said, ‘Leave me to do my mission’. Aaron said, ‘Moses commanded me to prevent you’. The angel said, ‘I am the messenger of God, and you are (only) the messenger of Moses’. Aaron said, ‘Moses says nothing on his own accord, rather, (he says matters only) through God. If you do not believe me, behold Moses and God are at the Tent of Meeting, come with me and ask”.
Moses knew that the people accused him and Aaron of murder. The Jews saw Moses and God as two opposing sides, i.e., Moses was not working in sync with God, as he apparently killed the “people of God”, i.e., Korach and his congregation. The Jews’ accusation “You have killed the people of God” displays the people’s belief that God was correct to follow, but Moses opposed God’s will. Moses now attempted to correct the Jews, and show that in fact, he and Aaron were not murderers opposing God. Moses sent Aaron to make atonement for the Jews. What was this atonement, and how did it entitle the Jews to be saved from God’s current plague?
The Jews saw Aaron with this incense offering, standing at the place where the last Jew dropped down in death; the plague progressed in a domino fashion. And the Jews now saw that no more Jews were dropping down dead, due to Aaron’s presence with the incense. They were now perplexed: they accused Aaron and Moses as murderers, but Aaron was now healing, and not killing as they previously assumed. This perplexity is what the Rashi described metaphorically as “Aaron seizing the Angel of Death”. Aaron was now correcting the “opinion” of the people, which made them deserving of death, as if he seized the cause of their death, i.e., the angel. The peoples’ opinion was in fact, their own “Angel of Death”. This means that the angel is not a real, separate “being”, but the cause of death is man’s own distance from God. And these Jews were distant from God when they imputed murder to Moses and Aaron.
As the Jews were now second guessing their accusation, but not completely abandoning this false view of Aaron and Moses, the plague stopped, but only temporarily, reflecting their temporal suspension of their accusation. So we may interpret Aaron as “seizing the angel of death” as his correction the false notions the Jews maintained that Moses and Aaron were murderers of Korachian revolutionaries. “Seizing the Angel of Death” means Aaron retarded the cause of death in the remaining Jews; he corrected their false notions, for which, others perished at God’s hand in this plague.
The Jews were confused, and rightly so, when they saw Aaron standing between the living and the dead with incense, apparently causing a halt to the deaths: Aaron is Moses’ messenger, but the plague was clearly from God. So, how could Aaron and Moses overpower God? How could Aaron on Moses’ mission halt a plague from God? This is what Rashi means when metaphorically the Angel of Death tells Aaron, “I am the messenger of God, and you are (only) the messenger of Moses”. The Angel in this metaphor personifies the false opinions of the people, which caused death. But with a corrected opinion, God will not kill. So the Angel talking in this metaphor, really represents the Jewish people’s corrupt opinion, which in fact causes death. (Sometimes, false views can be so wrong that the follower of such a view deserves death.)
Returning to the Rashi, Aaron replies to the Angel one last time, “Moses says nothing on his own accord, rather, (he says matters only) through God. If you do not believe me, behold Moses and God are at the Tent of Meeting, come with me and ask”. At this point, the plague was temporarily stopped, as the Jews were entertaining the idea that Moses and Aaron were not murderers, as Aaron was atoning, trying to keep them alive. Their perplexity about whether Aaron and Moses were following God had to be removed if they were to live permanently. This is what is meant that when Aaron returned to the tent of meeting (Numbers , 17:15) the plague was terminated completely. As the Jews witnessed Aaron, Moses, and God “together”, they now understood that Moses and Aaron were in fact followers of God. The metaphor depicts Aaron as ‘seizing’ the corrupt views of the people which demanded their death, allegorized by seizing an “Angel of Death”.
This Rashi is yet another of literally thousands of examples where the Rabbis wrote in riddles, as King Solomon taught in Proverbs 1:6. We learn from King Solomon, to whom God gave knowledge miraculously (Kings I, 3:12) that riddles are a means of education. We must continue to look for the hidden meanings in the Rabbis’ words, which at first seem bizarre. We must not take amazing stories literally. There are no demons roaming the Earth, no angels of death, no powers of segulas that protect. God is the only power, and He created the Earth and heavens and all they behold, with distinct, limited physical properties and laws. Physical creation cannot exceed its design: a piece of twined wool with a scarlet pigmentation does not suddenly get transformed into a device, which wards off God’s punishments. It is unfortunate that we have become so backwards.
What is worse, is that children are taught to accept superstitions. They become prime candidates for missionaries. Superstitious rearing teaches children that Christianity is no different.
This new mystical, pop-kabbalistic Judaism blurs the lines between true Torah principles and all other religions. When Jews fail to see the difference between a superstitious Judaism and other religions, they more easily convert. And they are accurate in this equation: there is no difference between a Judaism that preaches segulas, and that parts of God are “inside man”...and between Christianity that makes identical claims.
What parents, teachers, and leaders must do is teach our fundamentals. If Jewish children were taught the “What’s” and “Whys” about God’s unity; that He is not physical since He created all physical things; that He created everything and nothing possesses powers but He alone; that we cannot know what He is; that His Torah is correct – and why; that He rewards and punishes...and if students were taught the proofs behind these ideas – then far less students would abandon their observance. Far more students would find profound reasons to remain observant, and continue their studies. For they found reasonable explanations. However, the fundamentals are not being taught. Although important, classes in Hebrew language, grammar and electives, are given priority to Torah Fundamentals, and Comparative Religion.
Maimonides formulated his 13 Principles for a reason. Let’s ensure we teach them before anything else.