Out of Bounds1
Hashem said to Moshe: “Bring back the staff of Aharon before the
Testimony as a safekeeping – as a sign for men of rebellion. Let their
complaints against me cease, so they will not die.”
Could success ruin Torah? There is good reason to think that it could – but
the Torah, as usual, is one step ahead of us.
Korach’s rebellion simply didn’t go away. The fire-pans of the ill-fated
group of two hundred and fifty who sought Aharon’s position were not
destroyed, nor did they disappear into the bowels of the earth like Korach
and his gang. Instead, they became a permanent part of the altar, forever
memorializing the episode and its lessons.
Yet even more dramatic is the aftermath of the staff-sprouting trial. We
would think that once Aharon’s credentials were supported by miraculous
Divine intervention that Aharon’s role and that of his descendants would be
secured for all time. The Torah seems to think differently. Here, too, the
Torah asks that we memorialize the incident, but in an even more dramatic
way. Aharon’s staff beomes inextricably linked to the Ark containing the
luchos. This turns Aharon’s mateh into a high-profile reminder, somehow
linked to nothing less than Divine Revelation at Sinai.
We propose that Aharon’s staff continues the events of Revelation into the
distant future. Looking back, we realize that how Matan Torah occurred was
almost as important as the fact that it occurred. Prior to the giving of the
Torah, Hashem required that the mountain be cordoned off, leaving its slope
off-limits to all but a few. This impressed upon the people that the Torah
came to them, rather than from them. Torah was entirely of Divine origin,
and had to be given to them according to the terms of the Giver. It was not
a Magna Carta of the Jewish people, some agreement arrived at by the many.
The people had no say in it, other than to choose to receive it. Every part
of it emanated from a higher place, from a Divine Lawgiver, not from human
beings attempting to discern the mindset of their Creator, or how to best
Hashem saw fit to keep this essential idea about Torah prominent in the
minds of the Jewish people. Once erected, the mishkan would serve as a
constant reminder of the Revelation at Sinai. The ultimate focal point of
the mishkan was the aron in the kodesh kodashim, housing the luchos, which
were the physical consequence of Ma’amad Har Sinai. Here, too, HKBH insisted
on the same pattern of hagbalah, or cordoning off the holiest area, and
allowing others to approach to different points, similar to the positioning
of some people at different elevations of the mountain. This cordoning off
was accomplished by buffer zones – areas immediately around the mishkan
that were allocated to the kohanim and the levi’im, with the remainder of
the people encamped around them.
This seems reasonable and appropriate enough. We realize that there will be
different levels of spiritual attainment among the people. No one questioned
at the time that Moshe should be able to ascend the mountain, while the bulk
of the nation stood in trepidation at the base. Neither did people object to
allowing known leaders and models like Aharon’s sons to position themselves
on the mountain, part of the way up to the top. People understood that some
deserved positions of closeness to the Divine Presence.
There is a corollary to this, however. What will people think at a time
that Torah has taken hold well of a community, and allowed its members to
spiritually soar? What happens when the ideals of the mishkan are
thoroughly studied, appreciated and internalized, so that there is less and
less difference between what all the avodah symbolizes and the actual
conduct of the people? Paradoxically, as the Torah nation improves its
conduct in the course of time, the argument of Korach becomes more
attractive. All of the people are holy! The difference between their weakest
and their greatest has shriveled and shrunk. Perhaps all distinctions should
be dropped, providing equal access for all to the Shechinah!
There is great danger in such an attitude. It can easily slide into heresy.
As people believe that they approach the lofty goals of Torah, as they
imagine that their minds are more in synch with that of the Divine, it
becomes easier to think that lofty human beings were also the Torah’s
creators. Such great minds find it easier to assert that those like them
founded the religion through their own gifted imagination. They say to
themselves, “That really resonates. We really understand that. We should
have thought of that ourselves. Upon reflection, maybe we actually did…”
To this end, the continued hagbalah of the nation serves as a reminder of
the Heavenly source of the Torah. The nation can come only so far. More
importantly, the kohanim themselves, symbols of the refined, enlightened
souls who are closer to G-d, can only come so far. They can approach only
after they have been chosen by G-d Himself (as demonstrated by the placing
Aharon’s staff close to the Aron), only after preparing themselves through
the kiddush of hands and feet in the kiyor, and even then only as
representatives of the people, garbed in their special begadim, but not in
their individual identities.
The mishkan serves to make the Shechinah immediate and approachable. Yet, in
His great wisdom, Hashem leaves its core essentially impenetrable and
unapproachable, reminding us of that Torah may be for us, but it is not of
us. The specious argument of Korach has everlasting allure; the Torah
therefore includes within the protocols of the mishkan strong reminders to
resist and repel it.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Bamidbar 17:25