Cold as Ice and A Potion for Life
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Moshe sent to call Dasan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav. They said, "We will
not come up! Is it a small thing that you have brought us out of a land
flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the desert, that you also make
yourself a prince over us?!" (BaMidbar 15:12)
Chutzpah! What incredible chutzpah!
First of all, how dare Dasan and Aviram accuse Moshe have being responsible
for the generation's dying in the desert! It was the spies in last week's
parsha that forced G-d to cancel the trip to Israel for an extra 39 years,
to allow that generation to die off in the desert.
Secondly, Egypt was the land that was flowing with milk and honey? Ouch! To
reject Eretz Yisroel and choose to return to Egypt is one thing; but to
steal the appellation meant for G-d's holy land and to apply it to the very
land G-d rejected is the ultimate insult! What an affront! How many of us
could withstand this and not give it to Dasan and Aviram, but good?
Even Moshe had enough at this point. They question is, why?
After all, though it had been Dasan and Aviram who saved overnight some
munn after being told not to (Midrash Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 10), Moshe did not
pray then for their demise. In fact, it had been their insolence that had
caused Moshe to forget to tell the Jewish people about the special double
portion of munn erev Shabbos, which earned him Divine wrath as well (Shemos
Rabbah 25:2). Still, Moshe had let it go.
And before that, when the Jewish people had stood helpless by the shores of
the Red Sea while the Egyptians waited to pounce on them, had it not been
Dasan and Aviram who had sharply criticized Moshe, asking to return instead
to Egypt (Rokeach)? Still, Moshe looked past that one too, and ignored
Dasan and Aviram while focusing instead on saving the Jewish people.
And before even that, had it not been Dasan and Aviram who had forced Moshe
to flee Egypt? The Torah tells us that Moshe, after
watching an Egyptian taskmaster visciously beat a Jew, killed the Egyptian
to save the Jew's life, a capital offence in Egypt. The Midrash tells us
the Jew Moshe saved was none other than Dasan himself (Shemos Rabbah 1:31)!
Had Dasan been grateful? The Torah relates how the next day while Moshe was
making his daily rounds to empathize with his suffering brethren, he found
two men in this midst of a violent quarrel. The Midrash tells us that they
were Dasan, and his brother-in-law Aviram. For breaking up the fight, the
"Who made you to meddle in our affairs!"
Dasan and Aviram didn't stop there either; in revenge, they reported Moshe
to Paroah; this resulted in a warrant for Moshe's arrest and execution. To
save his life, Moshe fled the comfort of Pharaoh's palace and went it to
Clearly, Dasan and Aviram had it out for Moshe from the very beginning,
even calling for his replacement as leader in last week's parsha. Yet,
still, when the time had come to leave Egypt, Moshe had harbored no grudge
against the two evil men, and brought them out of Egypt as well. Still, in
each case of abuse, Moshe simply looked the other way and focused instead
on the task at hand.
Why did Moshe show such forbearance? Rashi provides the answer in this
From here we learn that one should not persist in argument, for you see
that Moshe sought them out to conciliate them with peaceful words. (Rashi)
Moshe was a man of peace, a leader who despised fights. This is what made
it so painful for him when others, such as Korach and his followers, tried
to engage him in argument. That is why even after all they had done to
Moshe, including endangering his life on several occasions, Moshe still
tried to make peace even with Dasan and Aviram.
If so, then the question becomes: Why did Moshe change his mind in this
week's parsha, by responding to Dasan's and Aviram's refusal with anger?
The answer is in Moshe's request to G-d:
" ... Do not pay attention to their offering! I have not taken one donkey
from them, nor have I wronged them in any way!" (BaMidbar 15:15)
In other words, Moshe's anger was no longer on behalf of himself, but on
behalf of G-d. Moshe could handle being insulted by Dasan and Aviram, even
their cry to replace him as leader. Such verbal abuse and even death
threats come with public office! However, what Moshe could not tolerate was
their abuse of G-d, which came out loud and clear when they insulted Eretz
Yisroel and praised Egypt, reversing, in effect, all that G-d had done for
and promised them. Dasan and Aviram, in this week's parsha, had crossed the
line for the last time.
(Their names actually meant: who disregarded the law (da'as) of G-d;
Aviram: who hardened (Ivair) his heart not to repent; Sanhedrin 109b; see
Rashi on 17:3 as well.)
Thus, as hard as they had tried to upset Moshe and bring out the worse in
him, Dasan and Aviram had failed each time. However, in this week's parsha,
not only did they fail to bring out the worse in Moshe, they succeeded in
bringing out the best in him; they galvanized his trait of zealousness! It
was as if Moshe was saying:
"You can talk that way about me and my promises, but you can't talk that
way about my G-d, and His promises!"
This is what should happen to any G-d-fearing Jew when the holy Name of G-d
is being profaned. Certainly, it is the way Jewish leaders should respond
when the honor of Torah is being threatened, even if doing so risks making
them unpopular in the eyes of their community.
I remember how once a disgruntled friend of mine complained to me about the
local rabbis' over-zealousness to upgrade the kashrus of the town from
which he came. He argued that their interference was causing a division in
the community, and that this was proof they weren't true Talmidei Chachamim
(Torah Scholars). After all, he quoted, "Torah scholars increase peace in
the world ..." (Brochos 64b); these rabbis were only "disturbing" the local
The only way to truly know when to act zealously and to take take up the
issue is by asking, "Whose honor is at stake here, mine or G-d's?" Which
insult am I responding to? The one directed at me, or at G-d's Torah? If
Korach, Dasan, Aviram, and their entire group had simply asked these
questions, and had been honest enough to answer them correctly, they might
have done the necessary tshuva, and lived to see the true land "flowing
with milk and honey."
Korach took, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehas, the son of Levi ...
He "took" of himself on one side with the view of separating himself from
the community in order to protest the position of the priesthood that Moshe
gave to Aharon his brother. (Rashi)
The Torah makes it appear that the argument in this week's parsha began
with Korach; as if all of his influences were internal, not external. He
was a great individual to be sure, and he was aware of his greatness. He
even had the ability to know the future, albeit somewhat vaguely, but
clearly enough to know that great people would descend for him. This, the
Midrash indicates, empowered him to stand up to Moshe, in spite of the fact
that the Clouds of Glory still encircled the nation and food still fell
However, another Midrash seems to indicate something quite different.
Apparently Korach's wife was the catalyst for all that happened at the
beginning of this week's parsha. After Korach returned from the
purification ceremony that inaugurated the Levites into their Divine
service, shaven bald (korach means "bald one") to the point of being
unrecognizable, Korach's wife exclaimed:
"What happened to you?! I don't recognize you!"
Korach explained to his wife that Moshe had ordered the whole procedure, as
well as the entire disgraceful episode of being lifted by Aharon and waved
up and down.
"Then Moshe told me I was pure," Korach bemoaned, "but I feel anything but
"No wonder," Korach's wife cried. "Moshe hates you, and he is trying to
"But Moshe did the same thing to his own sons ..."
" ... What does he care," she finished. "As long as he can degrade you in
the process!" (Midrash Aggadatah)
This was all Korach needed to hear. Korach may have been teetering between
subjugation and rebellion, but it was his wife who pushed him in the
direction of sedition. From that conversation, it was straight downhill
until Korach would be swallowed up by the earth.
This is contrasted with Ohn ben Pellet's wife, who also played a role in
her husband's involvement in the insurrection. However, instead of pushing
her husband in Korach's direction she "dragged" him out of danger and saved
his life. The next day, when Korach's messenger came to fetch Ohn to join
in burning the Incense-Offering as Moshe had challenged them to do, Ohn's
wife had already given him strong drink to make her husband sleep. Then she
sat at the entrance of the tent with her daughter, each with uncovered
The Midrash explains that when the messenger glimpsed these women with
uncovered hair, he (and the others that had later been sent to bring Ohn as
well) hastily made a retreat. It seems that even though they rebelled
against Moshe, still, the messengers did not want to view a married woman's
uncovered hair. As a result, Ohn was left safe-and sound at home while
disaster brewed over yonder for his cohorts.
Ohn's wife's role in his salvation was not over yet. When the earth finally
did split to swallow up Korach's followers, it continued to split in Ohn's
direction as well. Soon, even the bed on which Ohn slept began to slide
toward the abyss. It was only his wife, who prayed as she held on to the
edge of his bed for dear life, that saved him from sliding into oblivion.
About these two wives, Shlomo HaMelech wrote:
"The wise among the women builds her house ..." this refers to Ohn ben
Pellet's wife and daughter ... "But the evil woman demolishes it with her
own hands" (Mishlei 9:1). This refers to Korach's wife, who ruined her
husband and her household. (BaMidbar Rabbah 18:15)
However, maybe there is another message here as well.
Korach's attack against Moshe eventually questioned the Divinity of all the
mitzvos he had taught the Jewish people; specifically, Korach questioned
the validity of the laws that Moshe taught orally, but which were not
revealed directly by the Torah. This section of Torah is called, "Torah
Sh'b'al Peh," or the "Oral Law."
One such mitzvah was that of a married woman covering her hair, which, the
Talmud states is a Torah-mitzvah, alluded to in the section dealing with
the Sota (Kesuvos 72a). However, there is no obvious mention of this law in
the Written Torah itself, like the mitzvah to wear tefillin or to eat
Yet, when the messengers came to retrieve Ohn to join the ranks of the
rebellion, it was the uncovered woman's hair that turned them back.
Apparently they accepted the law that states that a married woman must
cover her hair (at least in public) as being from G-d. "If so," Ohn's wife
may have been alluding, "then perhaps Korach's rebellion is not one based
upon logic, or upon a desire to know the truth; perhaps this is Korach's
own personal rebellion, and he is using you to support him before Moshe!"
However, it seems as if Korach's messengers neither picked up the message,
nor delivered it. Or perhaps they had; perhaps it was just the wall of
stubbornness and jealousy that Korach had erected that prevented the
message from having its desired impact ... at least on Korach and his
followers. For the rest of us, we can heed her brave message, and avoid
being "swallowed" by the abyss of false doubt in the veracity of the Oral
Rebi Shimon ben Lakish asked: Where do we find a hint in the Torah to the
mitzvah of visiting the sick? From the verse,
"If these men die the common death of all men, and be visited after the
visitation of all men, then G-d has not sent me." (BaMidbar 16:29)
How does he infer it from this? Rava said: It means that if these men
(those who rebelled with Korach) die as old men die, that is, that they
will be sick in bed and that people will come visit them ... Then people
will say that G-d has not sent these plagues to them. (Nedarim 39b)
What an interesting allusion to a mitzvah that would seem, at least at
first (and second) glance to have nothing to do with this parsha! Moshe was
setting up a situation that would result in the death of some evil people,
which was bound to shock the nation as a result, and this is the source for
visiting the sick?
Furthermore, a clearer source for this mitzvah is back in Parashas
VaYairah, when G-d visited Avraham on his third day after performing Bris
Milah on himself and his entire household. At least in that parsha,
"Something" is coming to visit someone who is not well. What, then, Rebi
Shimon ben Lakish coming to teach?
For that, we need a better understanding of the mitzvah of bikur cholim
(visiting the sick).
Whoever visits a sick person takes away one-sixtieth of his suffering.
Whoever visits a sick person causes him to live, but whoever does not visit
a sick person causes him to die ... Whoever visits a sick person will be
saved from the judgment of Gihennom ... Whoever visits the sick should not
sit upon the bed, nor even upon a bench, but he should wrap his mantle
around him and sit on the ground, for the Divine Presence resides above the
bed of a sick person ... (Nedarim 40a)
These are the things of which a man eats of their fruits in This World,
while the principle remains for him in The World-to-Come ... Visiting the
sick ... (Shabbos 127a)
There is more, but the message comes through that the mitzvah of visiting
the sick is unique among the mitzvos. Sometimes that might be because the
Torah needs to encourage us to do that which comes less "naturally" to us,
to do mitzvos that our yetzer hara particularly loathes. And sometimes this
is the case because the Torah knows it is a mitzvah from which we perceive
little personal benefit, and the Torah wants to assure us that this is a
In a fast-paced society, sick people slow us down. In fact, we might
suspect that G-d is angry at them, and that is why they are sick, and not
us. Sometimes we have difficulty realizing that not all sickness is
"punishment"; perhaps it is a test, for the sick person, and for us. In
fact, like poor people who roam the streets in search of charity, people
who need to depend upon others are often this way to test the sensitivity
of those in a position to give.
So, in spite of the fact that one of the last places one would expect to
find the Divine Presence "hovering" is over the bed of an infirmed person,
that's exactly where you'll find it. This is because G-d makes Himself
available to those who show concern for the well-being of others, even, no
especially if it involves some personal risk, such as visiting and spending
some time with some who doesn't feel well. This is true G-dliness.
And therein lies Rebi Shimon ben Lakish's connection between Korach's
rebellion and the mitzvah to visit the sick. Korach's claim to Moshe and
the people that supported him was that he was a "man of the people,"
motivated only by the interests of the nation. This is what he meant when
he argued, "All of us are holy!"
However, Moshe was trying to reveal Korach for what he was, a man consumed
by his own need for recognition, and a user of people. The name "korach"
can also mean cold, as in "ice cube" (kerach). People visit unwell people
whom they know to be fine people, those who also care about others and who
would visit those who are sick if they themselves were well. The more
someone cares about other people, the more they are cared for by those
around them. Moshe was indicating that Korach was not such a person, and
therefore not so holy after all.
Hence, when the Torah warns future generations to not "be like Korach and
his assembly,"it doesn't just mean don't argue with Jewish leadership,
especially for selfish reasons. It also means be someone who appreciates
what he has, so that you can also appreciate and feel for people who don't.
In spite of the fact that Moshe had gone to great lengths to indicate to
the people that all he did he did on behalf of G-d, still, the people found
reason to rebel again after the incident with Korach. They yelled,
"You killed G-d's people!" (BaMidbar 17:6)
This time G-d had enough and acted without Moshe. Instantly, He sent a
plague among those who complained, and death began to consume the Jewish
people. What did Moshe do? Again, he overlooked his own personal honor and
began to plead on behalf of the very people who sought to harm him. He told
"Take the censer and put fire in it from the altar, and incense as well!
Then go quickly and atone for them, for anger has gone out from G-d and the
plague has begun!" ... He put on incense and atoned for the people. And he
stood before the dead and the living, and the plague was restrained.
This was a "trick" that Moshe learned from the Angel of Death himself, when
he the received Torah at Mt. Sinai, as the Talmud teaches:
... Even the Angel of Death gave him something, as it says, "He put on
incense and atoned for the people. And he stood before the dead and the
living, and the plague was restrained." (BaMidbar 17:12). If not, then how
did he know to do it? (Shabbos 89a)
However, the rabbis asked on this:
Why did the incense stop the plague? Because the Jews were speaking badly
about the incense saying that it is a deadly poison; because of it, Nadav
and Avihu died (VaYikrah 9:24), and through it 250 men were just burnt!
Therefore, the Holy One, Blessed is He, said, "You will see that it is also
a means for restraining the plague, and that it is only sin that brings
death!" (Rashi, BaMidbar 17:13)
This is not unlike Torah, which the Talmud calls a "potion for life" and a
"potion for death" (Yoma 72b). In life, most things are either good for
you, or bad for you, but the Incense-Offering, like Torah itself possesses
the ability to be either; it just depends upon one's spiritual disposition
at the time of usage.
Perhaps this is why Rashi goes to great pains to transform the word
"ketores" (incense) into a gematria equal to 613:
The total numerical value of the word "ketores" (kuf, tes, reish, tav) is
equal to 613, the number of Torah commandments, when you change the "kuf"
for a "dalet" according to the method of permutation known as ... (BaMidbar
Without the change, "ketores" is equal to 709 (100+9+200+400); according to
Rashi and the replacement of the "kuf" with a "dalet," the total is 613
Now, in spite of the fact that Rashi is Rashi, and that he rarely says
anything without a tradition to back him up (otherwise, he will say it is
his own opinion), still, the question is: Why switch only the first letter,
and not all the letters? In the world of gematrios, this is not a common
one at all.
Interestingly enough, there is another similar, unlikely numerical
comparison that leads to the opening of this week's parsha, at least in the
Midrash. According to the Midrash, one of Korach's "devices" to turn the
tide of popular opinion against Moshe, and to prove that the laws he taught
were his own and not G-d's, involved the mitzvah of tzitzis (the last
mitzvah of the previous parsha).
The tzitzis will remind one of all the commandments because the numerical
value of the letters of the word "tzitzis" (tzaddik, yud, tzaddik, yud,
tav: 90+10+90+10+ 400) is 600. With the eight strings and the five knots in
the fringes themselves, the total becomes 613, the number of Torah
commandments. (Rashi, BaMidbar 15:39)
Wait a second. How's that again? It would seem, even to those familiar with
the rules of gematria, that it is one thing to total letters, and maybe
switch a few around here and there. But when does gematria combine numbers
and objects to achieve its numerical objective?
The answer is, when there is a tradition to do so, and when doing so makes
the point that it is one's attitude toward Torah that determines whether or
not it will further one's spiritual growth, or detract from it. After all,
the section dealing with the mitzvah of tzitzis came at the end of the
parsha of the spies. Hence, the Torah warns:
Don't spy after the desires of your hearts and your eyes! (BaMidbar 15:39)
For, if you do, everything you do, everything you say, everything you even
think will become twisted, distorted; it will become falsehood enclothed
with the appearance of truth and good intentions. You'll be able to fool
the people around you, perhaps, but not G-d. Look at your tzitzis and do a
"reality-check." It was a warning to Korach and his followers. It is a
warning to all of us as well.
Korach may have had a complaint about tzitzis. Those who survived him may
have had complaints about the Ketores. However, the Torah has a complaint
against sinners: Don't blame me for what goes wrong in your life; sin
kills, not "snakes" (Brochos 33a). Torah, on the other hand, "is a Tree of
Life, for those who grasp it" (Mishlei 3:18).