Angel of Death

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

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 killed 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 were 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. Aaron’s rod blossoming demonstrated whom God favored. Now the Jew’s false opinion that Korach followed God was rejected, as it was Aaron’s staff—not Korach’s—which God favored.  

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 end the plague, which God sent to kill the Jews? Moses commanded Aaron 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. 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” and this is the meaning of “and Aaron returned to Moses” [Num. 17:15].  (Rashi, Num. 17:13).

Moses knew that the people accused him and Aaron of murder. The Jews viewed Moses and God in conflict, 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” displayed 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 his 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 due to Aaron’s presence with the incense, no more Jews were dropping down dead. They were now perplexed: they accused Aaron and Moses as murderers, but Aaron was now saving lives—not killing—as they previously accused. 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 earned them death, as if Aaron seized the cause of their death. The peoples’ opinion was in fact, their own “Angel of Death.” This means that the angel is not a real 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. We may interpret Aaron as “seizing the angel of death” as his correction the Jews’ false accusation of Moses and Aaron. “Seizing the Angel of Death” means Aaron removed the cause of death in the remaining Jews; he corrected their false notions which earned them death.

When they saw Aaron standing between the living and the dead with incense halting the plague, the Jews were confused. Aaron is Moses’ messenger, but the plague was clearly from God. So, how could Aaron and Moses overpower 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 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 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 (Num. 17:15) and 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 the “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 string dyed red cannot ward off God’s punishments. It is unfortunate that we have become so idolatrous with red bendels.

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, or that parts of God are “inside man,” and between superstitious religions.

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 and therefore we can’t say “part of God is in man,” that His Torah is correct (and how it is so), that He rewards and punishes…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 and grow more dedicated to a Torah life. However, the fundamentals are not being taught.

Maimonides formulated his 13 Principles for a reason. Teach them to your children now.