An old Christian lady comes onto her front porch every morning and shouts; ‘’Praise the Lord!’’
And every morning the atheist next door yells back – ‘’There is no God!’’
This goes on for weeks – ‘’Praise the Lord’’ yells the lady. ‘’There is no God!’’ responds the neighbour.
As time goes by, the lady comes into financial difficulties and has trouble buying food. She goes out onto the porch and asks God for help with groceries and then says her customary ‘’Praise the Lord!’’
The next morning when she goes out onto the porch there are the groceries she asked for and of course she shouts – ‘’Praise the Lord!
The atheist jumps out from behind a bush and says, “Ha! I bought those groceries. There is no God!”
The lady then looks a him and smiles. She shouts, ‘’Praise the Lord! Not only did you provide for me, Lord you made Satan pay for the groceries!
Lockdown has had some silver linings – neighbours and communities coming together. Although perhaps physically apart – this time has enabled the development of a common bond as perhaps never before in recent memory.
After retributions had been meted out to Korah and his fellow rebels the Israelites gathered against Moses and Aaron, menacing them with the eerily prescient accusation that they had ‘’brought death upon God’s people .’’ Outraged at the nation’s defiance God charged Moses and Aaron with the injunction at the opening of our reading today to remove themselves from the community that He may annihilate the people. A plague then stalks the camps first consuming 10s then hundreds and then thousands. What happens next are I think 3 powerful lessons that we may draw as we confront our own realities today.
Defiance and speaking truth to power
The first is Moses and Aaron’s complete defiance of God’s command to separate from the people. Instead in an audacious mirroring of the Israelites’ own defiance – Moses himself issues a command to Aaron to disobey God and prepare the sacrificial incense in order to make expiation for the people. These are terrifying moments as the brothers put their devotion for the nation ahead of their own self-preservation. It is a deeply fearful and frantic aside when Moses shares ‘’For wrath has gone forth from the Lord – the plague has begun’’ (Numbers 17:11).
This act of protest in the face of adversity, of defying God no less is perhaps reminiscent of other great ancestors of our tradition as Abraham and Jeremiah who each spoke out when they thought they witnessed injustice. The text perhaps radically shows that it is not necessarily obedience that God asks of us but rather speaking and acting our own truth.
It is perhaps too reminiscent of Job’s commitment to truth which is unwavering. And his refusal to prevaricate is so stark that he even challenges God. He simply cannot understand what wrong he has done and so levels the charge of injustice at the Lord as he says: “The earth is handed over to the wicked; He (God) covers the eyes of the judges.” In response to Job’s revolutionary pretensions and in defence of divine honour the Talmud suggests that: “Job’s mouth should be stuffed with dirt’’ And yet, in spite of Job’s harsh challenges to divine justice it is Job who is in fact vindicated in the end. In an important line the poet has the Lord rebuke Job’s friends for failing to ‘’speak about me in honesty as did my servant Job.’’
Moses, Aaron and Job remind us that the Jewish way of faith in the face of suffering is not acceptance but protest. Their speaking truth to power is a novel theological notion and one that we may well emulate in this time too.
The second powerful lesson that we may draw from this episode is Aaron’s immediate jump into action. He does not flinch. He runs ‘’into the midst of the congregation where the (very) plague (itself) had begun’’ We have known Aaron for his speech, he has been Moses’ mouthpiece. We have known him for his silence – following the tragic and mysterious death of his two sons Nadav and Avihu and here he is a man of action. Even more than this, the curative that he prepares is fraught with danger. The very same mercurial incense has only just brought about Korach’s demise and more poignantly the deaths of his sons earlier too.
From this episode I think we may glean an important example central to our tradition that it is the transformation of the physical world that is paramount. God may have issued his call to Moses and Aaron to withdraw from it to protect themselves but ultimately it is Aaron’s engagement that saves the day – as through his strength of body and spirit the plague is halted. There is a line associated with a guru in India that I think is apt here – ‘’hands that help are holier than lips that pray’’.
As with Aaron, so too with all those many brave key workers on the front line in recent weeks – Drs and nurses perhaps particularly but all the other countless acts of kindness too – shopping for an elderly neighbour, a call with a friend who has not managed to leave the house for months…all these acts that have helped to put the virus into reverse!
The third and possibly most powerful lesson that I think we may draw from this episode is the notion of true confrontation. It is not only Aaron’s various actions – his incense preparation, atonement on behalf of the people that stays the plague. It is ultimately his standing ‘’between the dead and between the living’’ that leads to the cessation of the plague.
The medieval commentator Rashi brings a midrash on this verse which has it that Aaron ‘’takes hold of an Angel and restrains him against his will.’’ What happens in their confrontation is ultimately a clash over what is the true Divine will as Aaron persuades the Angel that it is Moses whose command channels the ultimate Divine concern. What Rashi is perhaps suggesting is that for transformation to occur, in this instance the halting of the plague, Aaron needs to wrestle with issues of ultimate concern.
This verse is maybe particularly resonant because it strikes us today as we are emerging out of lockdown, during what has been such a tragic time, we too stand between the living and the dead. As we do and for ultimate transformation to occur perhaps there are questions of ultimate concern that we are being asked too?
Commenting on the same verse Rashi explains that the expiation is accomplished with the incense to show the people that it was not the incense per se that had been responsible for Korach and his fellow rebels deaths or that of Nadav and Avihu but rather their sins. It is therefore using the same incense that aids Aaron not on a path of avoidance but of ultimate confrontation and transformation.
Perhaps, as we emerge from this time of standing between the dead and between the living there is a rebalancing on which we are called on to achieve – for a world that speaks truth to power, that can rely on healing action and all of us to confront the injustices so that in the words of Dylan Thomas’ we “Do not go gentle into that good night but, Rage Rage against the dying of the light!”