Does God believe in collective punishment? That certainly seems to be the impression this week when God tells Moses, “Separate yourselves from this group and I will instantly annihilate them!” (Numbers 16:21). Perhaps God intends to kill only the guilty, but Moses understands otherwise, protesting, “O God, Source of all the breath of all flesh! When one man sins,will you be wrathful with the whole community?” (v. 22—JPS trans). The verb for being wrathful is תקצף; in the next chapter God will indeed unleash the “wrath” or קצף against the entire people, requiring an emergency intervention by Aaron to avoid the annihilation of Israel. As a beautiful Midrash in Tanhuma (Tzav) notes, Moses is to “take” קח Aaron, commanding him to “take” the incense—Aaron is exalted in order to rescue the people. In contrast, the “taking” of Korah ויקח was to exalt himself and to “take down” others. The challenges of religious leadership are on display here. God wants leaders who will exalt the people, not themselves. But in order to get to this lesson, God threatens repeatedly to destroy the people, challenging the leaders to act effectively as their defenders.
Looking back a week, we see a pattern. In Chapter 14, vs. 11-19, God responds to the people’s panicked reaction to the report of the spies by threatening to wipe them all out and start with Moses as the father of a new nation. In that instance, Moses employs two arguments to talk God down from this threat. His first argument appeals to divine vanity—if you kill your people whom you so extravagantly rescued from Egypt, then “the nations who have heard Your fame will say, ‘It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land that He had promised them on oath that He slaughtered them in the wilderness.’” This argument also reminds God of the oath made to the ancestors. Yet Moses knows that God is justifiably enraged with the people, and so Moses introduces a second argument—let Your power become greater through the exercise of mercy.
It’s a nifty move. The normal way for a king to demonstrate power is to punish those who have defied him. Moses points out that in this case, at least, such a reaction would make God look feeble, not powerful. The way to demonstrate divine power is not through violent retribution but through the extension of mercy. This argument works up to a point. God abandons the threat to kill them all, but devises a clever punishment that will affect the guilty—the desert generation—while sparing their innocent descendants.
That was last week in Shlah Lekha, but this week in Korah Moses employs a different tactic, appealing to the divine sense of justice. Why? It seems that the vanity argument left God unmoved. By delaying the entrance to the Land by 40 years, God has effectively ignored the concern of “what will the nations say?” But Moses also refrains from the appeal to mercy this time. Perhaps this is because after the incident of the spies, the nation was truly guilty on a collective level, and mercy was the only option left. This week in the mingled incidents of Korah, and then Datan and Aviram, the people as a whole are not party to the rebellion. In other words, the guilty and the innocent are mingled but still separable. Thus Moses protests the injustice of God’s plan to annihilate the nation, and God concedes the point, telling the innocent to separate themselves from the guilty. Indeed, God earlier taught Moses this very principle back in Exodus 32:33, after Moses petulantly stated that if God is going to punish those guilty of worshipping the golden calf, “then erase me from Your book.” God responded, “He who has sinned against Me, him only will I erase from my record.”
Moses has learned that God is sensitive to appeals to justice and to protests against collective punishment. Indeed, Moses sounds this week much like Abraham defending the innocent people whom he assumes must live in Sodom and Gomorah. Abraham argues, “will the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” Initially it seems that Abraham’s argument is spectacularly successful. God concedes that if fifty righteous people are found in Sodom, God will spare the entire city—including the guilty. Of course, we know how that story ends. And so perhaps this experience guides Moses to argue not for the sparing of everyone, but only of the innocent, and this becomes his winning argument.
Reflecting upon these stories, we must ask why it is that God repeatedly announces plans to exercise collective punishment, killing the righteous along with the wicked. Is this merely a test of the chosen leaders—Abraham and then Moses—to see if their theology is sound and their mettle is strong? Or perhaps, do the biblical authors want us to know something fundamental about God—that God’s predilection is to act on a large scale, showering God’s creatures with blessing and curse, depending on their collective virtue or vice, and that averting this collective wrath is the role of humanity?
This last observation brings us to a form of theodicy that is implicit in the Bible. God acts on the macro-level, giving blessings and curses based on the grand scale of history. Sometimes the result is that guilty people escape punishment through the merit of their generation. And sometimes innocent people will be swept up in the divine wrath, which is provoked by the evil prevalent in their times. When the innocent suffer or the guilty thrive it is because God acts on a large scale. However, God is not indifferent to the injustice that results from this “macro-theology.” God trains religious leaders to scan the environment, to notice individual injustices, and to rise up in protest so that justice will prevail on the micro-scale as well.
In the biblical stories, the dialogue is between prophets like Abraham or Moses and God, but the lesson for us is clear enough. When we notice that something is out of whack in our time—that the wicked are escaping justice while the righteous suffer—then it is God’s expectation that we too will rise in protest and act to restore justice. We can do this through religious gestures like prayer and study, but ultimately we also have to act on our convictions so that the tide can shift toward justice. We are living in times when the need for action is great. Looking at Moses, we must make his words our own—If one person sins, should wrath be upon all the people? And following his lead, we must act decisively to restore justice to an unjust world.
במדבר פרק טז
כא) הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם כְּרָגַע :
(כב) וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל פְּנֵיהֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵל אֱלֹהֵי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל בָּשָׂר הָאִישׁ אֶחָד יֶחֱטָא וְעַל כָּל הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף:
בראשית פרק יח
(כה) חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק כָּרָשָׁע חָלִלָה לָּךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט:
(כו) וַיֹּאמֶר יְדֹוָד אִם אֶמְצָא בִסְדֹם חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר וְנָשָׂאתִי לְכָל הַמָּקוֹם בַּעֲבוּרָם:
מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת צו סימן ט
כבוד חכמים ינחלו אלו בני אהרן שנא’ קח את אהרן ואת בניו אתו, למה נאמר כאן קח, א”ל הקב”ה למשה חייב אני לקיחה אלא קום אתה וגדלו בלקיחה שנאמר קח את אהרן, ואימתי לקח אהרן בשעה שיצא הקצף מלפני ה’ לחבל שונאיהם של ישראל, כיון שראה משה אמר ליה מה אתה עומד קח את המחתה ותן עליה אש (במדבר יז) אמר ליה אהרן מרי משה להרגני אתה מבקש, בני מפני שהקריבו לפניו אש הדיוטות נשרפו שנאמ’ (ויקרא י) ויקריבו לפני ה’ אש זרה ותצא אש מלפני ה’ ותאכל אותם, ולי אתה אומר קח את המחתה, בני הכניסו אש זרה ונשרפו ואני מוציא אש קדוש לחוץ ואיני מת ואיני נשרף, א”ל משה לך ועשה מהרה מה ששמעת עד שאתה עומד ומשיח הם מתים אלא עשה מהרה שנא’ (במדבר יז) והולך מהרה אל העדה וכפר עליהם כי יצא הקצף, כיון ששמע אהרן כן אמר ואלו אני מת על ישראל איני כדאי, מיד ויקח אהרן כאשר דבר משה, לכך אמר הקב”ה למשה קח את אהרן גדלהו בלקיחה מה אהרן הציל את בני בלקיחה שנאמר (שם /במדבר י”ז/) קח את המחתה אף אתה גדלהו בלקיחה, לכך כתיב קח את אהרן.