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Korach | The Plague and the Incense

Harav Yaakov Medan


I. The Plague and the Incense in the Wake of the Company of Korach

But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moshe and against Aharon, saying: “You have killed the people of the Lord.” And it came to pass, when the congregation was assembled against Moshe and against Aharon, that they looked toward the Tent of Meeting; and, behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord appeared. And Moshe and Aharon came to the front of the Tent of Meeting.
And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: “Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” And they fell upon their faces. And Moshe said to Aharon: “Take your fire-pan, and put fire in it from off the altar, and lay incense on it, and carry it quickly to the congregation, and make atonement for them; for there is wrath gone out from the Lord: the plague is begun.” And Aharon took as Moshe spoke, and ran into the midst of the assembly; and, behold, the plague was begun among the people; and he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stopped. Now they that died by the plague were fourteen thousand and seven hundred, besides those that died about the matter of Korach. And Aharon returned to Moshe to the door of the tent of meeting, and the plague was stopped. (Bamidbar 17:6-15)

God's words to Moshe, "Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment," are very similar to God's words to Moshe and Aharon when Korach assembled the entire congregation against them. There too, Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces, but there they asked for time for a solution. Here they don't have the chance to do that before the plague begins.

This difference teaches us the principle of “there is no punishment without a warning.”
[1] In our case, there was a retroactive connection to the company of Korach and another challenge against Moshe and Aharon after the warning that Moshe had issued to the people regarding the company of Korach. God did not give a second chance, and the plague began immediately. Moshe and Aharon had to find a solution while a strict application of the attribute of justice was already being executed.

It is not clear from the parasha whether or not the brothers had a coordinated solution. It is possible that they had different solutions for the plague that were joined into a single act.

Moshe commanded Aharon to carry incense to the people and make atonement for them, but what Aharon actually did was not necessarily in accordance with the words of Moshe. Aharon ran into the midst of the assembly and stood between the dead and the living. The condition that God had set for the destruction of the congregation was "Get you up from among this congregation." Aharon did the very opposite! He entered into the midst of the congregation and into the heart of the plague, between the dead and the living. "The angel of death," as portrayed by Chazal, could not operate when the person standing against his sword was Aharon, who was supposed to separate himself from the congregation but failed to do so.

It should be noted that in the last three sins of the people, Moshe and Aharon fell upon their faces: at the sin of the spies, with the assembly of Korach the first time, and with the complaint about the deaths of the congregation of Korach here:

And they said one to another: “Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt.” Then Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the children of Israel. (Bamidbar 14:4-5)

“Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” And they fell upon their faces, and said: “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and will You be wroth with all the congregation? (15:21-22)

“Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” And they fell upon their faces. And Moshe said to Aharon: “Take your fire-pan, and put fire in it from off the altar, and lay incense on it, and carry it quickly to the congregation, and make atonement for them.” (17:10-11)

          The first time they fell upon their faces, Moshe and Aharon did nothing. (We discussed this shortcoming elsewhere.) The second time, they fell on their faces and they prayed to God. The third time they take action; Moshe commands about burning incense outside the Mishkan, and Aharon adds his running into the midst of the people and his standing between the dead and the living, counter to the instruction, "Get you up from among the congregation."

II. Emergency Ruling

          Moshe's solution was to atone for the people by way of the incense. Twice in the past, incense had served the attribute of justice and brought about the burning of those who burned it – first in the incident involving Nadav and Avihu on the day of the consecration of the Mishkan, and a second time with the company of Korach, with the fire that consumed the two hundred and fifty princes of the congregation who burned incense at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Moshe's decision to achieve atonement for the people by way of the incense and to thereby save them from death had no clear precedent. It is true that God had said in the section dealing with Yom Kippur, which was stated immediately after the deaths of the two sons of Aharon, that the incense would atone for and save the priest when he enters the Holy of Holies:

And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the kaporet that is upon the testimony, that he die not. (Vayikra 16:13)

However, it is not clear that Yom Kippur had actually been observed since the time of that command,[2] and it is doubtful that there was some other practical expression of an incense that saved the life of the priest in the Holy of Holies. The incense in our parasha may be the first instance of incense that saves sinners while they are being punished.

The incense that Moshe commanded Aharon to burn was an emergency ruling that contradicts the Torah law that requires that the incense be burned in the Holy, and only at the times specified in the Torah. The incense of Yom Kippur that comes to atone and to save from death is burned only in the Holy of Holies, and perhaps only on Yom Kippur.[3] Here it is burned outside of the Mishkan and at a time unconnected to the service in the Mishkan. This seems to be the source of emergency rulings issued by the prophets, rulings running counter to Torah law that are issued in times of critical need, and it is apparently from here that the prophet Eliyahu derived his allowance to offer sacrifices outside the Temple on Mount Carmel.

As was already mentioned, Aharon blocked the Destroyer with his own body, when he stood up against him between the dead and the living and did not separate himself from the sinning congregation. Why did Moshe take another step, instructing the burning incense outside the Mishkan in order to atone for the people? It stands to reason that Moshe understood that Aharon's ability to block the angel of death was temporary; the Destroyer could circumvent Aharon and attack another end of the people. Moshe understood that the matter could not be closed without atonement and by way of the burning of incense.[4] It is also possible that it was important to Moshe that the atonement be achieved specifically by way of the incense, which had been blamed by the people for the killing of God's people.

It stands to reason that the complaint raised against Moshe and Aharon, "You have killed the people of the Lord," did not relate to the earth's swallowing up of Datan and Aviram. The sin of Datan and Aviram was clear to all, and the sheer force of the cleaving asunder of the ground brought the people to the understanding that it was from God. Nobody dared challenge the matter. Furthermore, the complaint raised by the people was against both Moshe and Aharon, but Moshe had stood up against Datan and Aviram by himself. It stands to reason then that the complaint against Moshe and Aharon was about the death by way of the fire of the incense of the two hundred and fifty princes of the congregation, who represented all of the people, and who were mourned by the entire congregation. The people suspected that there was some hidden way known only to Moshe and Aharon of putting the incense on the fire so that the fire would not jump from the fire-pan to the body and face of the person burning the incense, and that Moshe and Aharon exploited this information, to which they alone were privy, to rid themselves of the princes of the congregation who competed for the incense, leaving only Aharon in the High Priesthood.

It is possible that it was important to Moshe to show the people that the incense does not only burn. When necessary, it also protects, saves, and achieves atonement. After the death of the two sons of Aharon, the mitzva of burning incense in the Holy of Holies was given, and its purpose was to save the High Priest who enters inside and stands alone before the kaporet. After the death of the two hundred and fifty princes of the congregation, Moshe gave the mitzva of burning incense as an emergency ruling, and the incense protected and saved the people from the hands of the Destroyer.[5]

III. In the Days of Uziyahu and Chizkiyahu

But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up so that he did corruptly, and he trespassed against the Lord his God; for he went into the Temple of the Lord to burn incense upon the altar of incense. And Azarya the priest went in after him, and with him eighty priests of the Lord, that were valiant men; and they withstood Uziya the king, and said to him: “It pertains not to you, Uziya, to burn incense to the Lord, but to the priests the sons of Aharon who are consecrated it pertains to burn incense; go out of the sanctuary; for you have trespassed; neither shall it be for your honor from the Lord God.” Then Uziya was wroth; and he had a censer in his hand to burn incense; and while he was wroth with the priests, the leprosy broke forth in his forehead before the priests in the house of the Lord, beside the altar of incense. And Azarya the chief priest and all the priests looked upon him, and, behold, he was leprous in his forehead, and they thrust him out quickly from there; and he himself made haste also to go out, because the Lord had smitten him. And Uziya the king was a leper to the day of his death, and dwelt in a house set apart, being a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the Lord. (II Divrei Ha-Yamim 26:16-21)

It is related about Uziya the king of Yehuda that he did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord. His failure is reported only in the book of Divrei Ha-Yamim. He went in to burn incense, and leprosy erupted on his body and remained there until he died. What brought Uziya, a king who did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord, to return to the sin of the company of Korach and try to burn incense before God?

It is not at all clear that this was the only punishment for Uziya's burning of the incense. Chazal connect the earthquake that occurred in the time of Uziya[6] to the time that Uziya entered the Holy to burn the incense.[7] Both a fire that issued from God and an earthquake are found in our parasha in the incident involving the company of Korach. Is there a connection between what happened in the days of Uziya in Jerusalem and what happened to Korach's company, who burned a strange fire before God? It is possible that such a connection exists, as we find in the midrash:

On the day that Uziya rose up to burn incense in the Holy, the heavens and the earth quaked, and the seraphim came to burn him, as it is stated: "And fire came forth from the Lord, and devoured the two hundred and fifty men that offered the incense" (Bamidbar 16:35), because they offered a strange incense. This is why they are called seraphim, because they came to burn. And also the heavens came to burn him, and the earth came to swallow him, thinking that his punishment was to be swallowed up like Korach who challenged the priesthood. A heavenly voice issued forth, saying: "To be a memorial to the children of Israel… that he fare not as Korach, and as his company" (Bamidbar 17:5). (Tanchuma Tzav 13)

          Both according to the midrash and the according to the logic of our parasha, Uziya's punishment should have been like the punishment of the princes of the congregation, and the fire that came down from heaven (and according to us, the fire that was ignited from the coals on the fire-pan because of the incense) should have burned him. Below we will present arguments in Uziya's favor, arguments that are far from being fully convincing, but perhaps saved him from death.

Scripture does not spell out the type of leprosy with which Uziyahu was afflicted. According to what we have said, it may have been the following leprosy:

Or when the flesh has in the skin thereof a burning by fire, and the quick flesh of the burning become a bright spot, reddish-white, or white; then the priest shall look upon it; and, behold, if the hair in the bright spot be turned white, and the appearance thereof be deeper than the skin, it is leprosy, it has broken out in the burning; and the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is the plague of leprosy. (Vayikra 13:24-25)

          A serious burn can cause leprosy. It is possible that Uziyahu was severely burned by the fire that broke out from the fire-pan, but he did not die. The leprosy that broke out on his body because of his burns never left Uziyahu, but his primary punishment was the very burns that he suffered from the fire that partially burned him.


          Uziyahu's great-grandson, King Chizkiyahu, also did that which was right in the eyes of God all the days of his life, but one day he was struck with leprosy and came close to dying. Scripture does not tell us what his sin was:

In those days Chizkiyahu was sick to death. And Yeshayahu the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him: “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order; for you shall die, and not live.” (II Melakhim 20:1)

          In the continuation, Scripture spells out Chizkiyahu's illness:

And Yeshayahu said: “Take a cake of figs. And they took and laid it on the boil, and he recovered.” (II Melakhim 20:7) 

          Perhaps Chizkiyahu's illness was connected to an event in which it is clearly evident that Chizkiyahu acted improperly. This took place in the difficult days of the siege of Jerusalem by Sancheriv, king of Ashur, a period of unbearable hunger, when Sancheriv's threat to destroy Jerusalem seemed very real. In those days Jerusalem was on the verge of surrendering, after all of the fortified cities of Yehuda were captured and destroyed. When Ravshakeh, the representative of the king of Ashur, sent threat-filled letters to Chizkiyahu, Chizkiyahu took a step that ran counter to Halakha:

And Chizkiyahu received the letter from the hand of the messengers and read it; and Chizkiyahu went up to the house of the Lord and spread it before the Lord. And Chizkiyahu prayed before the Lord and said: “O Lord, the God of Israel, that sits upon the keruvim, You are the God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; You have made heaven and earth. Incline Your ear, O Lord, and hear; open Your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear the words of Sancheriv, with which he has sent him to taunt the living God. Of a truth, Lord, the kings of Ashur have laid waste the nations and their lands and have cast their gods into the fire; for they were no gods, but the work of men's hands, wood and stone; therefore they have destroyed them. Now therefore, O Lord our God, save You us, I beseech You, out of his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You are the Lord God, You only.” (II Melakhim 19:14-19) 

          Chizkiyahu, who was not a priest, apparently entered into the Holy. The doors of the Devir, the Holy of Holies, are open before him, and he turns to God that sits upon the keruvim and apparently looks toward the place of the Shekhina between the keruvim in the Holy of Holies, and there he prays. It is possible that Chezkiyahu was afraid to gaze upon a place about which it is stated: "For man shall not see me and live" (Shemot 33:20), and so he burned incense so that its cloud should cover the kaporet and thus fulfill the verse:

… that the cloud of the incense may cover the kaporet that is upon the testimony, that he die not. (Vayikra 16:13)

If he did this, he certainly intended this to be an emergency ruling, just as Moshe commanded Aharon to burn incense outside the Holy as the last means of saving the people of Israel from death. Chizkiyahu was liable to feel this way at the time of the danger that Jerusalem was facing in his day.[8]

It is possible that the leprosy of boils with which Chizkiyahu was afflicted was like the leprosy that his great-grandfather Uziya contracted when he burned the incense.[9] Uziya may also have burned the incense when he wanted to stand and pray to God facing the two keruvim at the time of the great danger that the people were facing in his day.[10] Perhaps the priests did not cooperate with the decisions of the kings to enter the Holy and pray there, and therefore Uziya burned the incense, and perhaps Chizkiyahu as well. Chizkiyahu merited God's forgiveness. Perhaps the great anger with Uziya, anger that did not merit forgiveness as did the anger with Chizkiyahu, stemmed from what is stated about him: "Then Uziya was wroth… and while he was wroth with the priests" (II Divrei Ha-Yamim 26:19). Uziya's wrath may not have been restricted to his heart or expressed only verbally. It may have led him to take sharp measures, and even to kill the priests who objected to his conduct.

(Translated by David Strauss).

[1] This principle (in a different formulation) arises from the talmudic passages in Bava Kama 105b; Makkot 5b, 14b; Avoda Zara 51b.

[2] Nadav and Avihu died on the day of the dedication of the Mishkan at the beginning of the month of Nisan of the second year. That same year on Tish'a Be-Av, the decree was issued that the generation of the wilderness would not enter the Land of Israel. Based on the unproven assumption that the incident involving the company of Korach took place shortly after this decree, Yom Kippur would not yet have been observed before our parasha.

[3] The Vilna Gaon writes that this part of the Yom Kippur service was available to Aharon the rest of the year as well. My revered teacher, R. Yoel Bin-Nun (Megadim 8, Sivan 5749, pp. 9-34) argues that the first part of "the Yom Kippur service" is available to every High Priest in a time of emergency, e.g., when there is a need to rescue the people from the anger that manifests itself in the strict application of the attribute of justice.

[4] In my opinion, this is supported by the verses: "And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stopped… And Aharon returned to Moshe to the door of the Tent of Meeting, and the plague was stopped." The first and temporary stopping of the plague was by virtue of Aharon, who stood between the dead and the living. The second and permanent stopping of the plague took place only after Aharon returned to Moshe at the door of the Tent of Meeting, at which time he completed his mission on behalf of Moshe with the incense.

Perhaps this is the source for the gemara's requirement that an agent return to the person who sent him and tell him that he completed his agency. See Gittin 24a, 63b, and Rashi in both places, s.v. lo chazra shelichut etzel ha-ba'al.

[5] I am reviewing this material on Rosh Chodesh Nisan 5780, during the corona pandemic, and I pray to God that He remove it from us just as He removed the plague by virtue of Aharon and his fire-pan, but without reaching such a great number of fatalities.

[6] See Amos 1:1; Zekharya 14:5. This earthquake is alluded to at length throughout the book of Amos and in Yeshayahu 2-6, and in Yeshayahu 24-27 there are allusions that it took place. 

[7] See, for example, Midrash Tehillim 79; Seder Olam Rabba 20. Archaeological evidence from the excavations at Tel Chatzor and new geological evidence attest that this was apparently the strongest earthquake in the Land of Israel in the last 4,000 years. Prof. Steve Austin from the Department of Geology in the Institute of Creation Research estimates that this earthquake exceded the magnitude of 7 on the Richter scale, and may even have reached the magnitude of 8. (See Shachar Shilo, Re'idot Adama Be-Yerushalayim U-Be-Eretz Israel; Gordon Franz, Institute of Holy Land Studies, Jerusalem, and Steve Austin, Institute of Creation Research, San Diego, "The 'Big One' Hits the Mediterranean: An Archaeological Appraisal of the Earthquake in the Days of King Uzziah." I thank my friend Prof. Yaakov Mimran for this reference.)

[8] This suggestion is wholly without proof. Perhaps Chizkiyahu was punished for his very entry before the keruvim. 

[9] It is true that his leprosy was on account of boils, and this is different from leprosy stemming from a burn, but perhaps they can be connected by way of the plague of boils in Egypt, which resulted from the soot of the furnace that Moshe threw up in the air in Egypt. Soot of the furnace connects us to burns. Similarly, the expression used in connection with the soot of the furnace, "Take to you handfuls of soot of the furnace" (Shemot 8:9), is reminiscent of the expression used in connection with incense: "and a handful of sweet incense beaten small" (Vayikra 16:12).

[10] Perhaps this was the victory of Tiglat Pilasar, king of Ashur, over "Azarya king of Ya'udi," as we find in the Assyrian sources.

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