Rashbam often attempts to minimize the negative view of the Israelites in the wilderness. He does so multiple times in this parashah, where the recurring complaints of the Israelites turns into full-blown rebellion under the leadership of Korach, Datan, and Aviram. After many of the rebel camp descend into the suddenly gaping mouth of the earth or burn up in divine fire, the people complain yet again. Rashbam, however, helps us understand their perspective.
Numbers 17:6 YOU HAVE BROUGHT DEATH ON THE LORD’S PEOPLE: “We admit concerning Datan and Aviram who were swallowed up [in an unprecedented manner] that [that proves that] they were sinners [and that is why they died in that spectacular manner]. But the other two hundred and fifty men died in the same way that Nadav and Avihu died [after they too offered incense without authorization]. You [Moses] are responsible for their death since you commanded them to offer an [unauthorized] incense offering. (Translation adapted from Martin Lockshin)
The people are understandably frightened of the scary punishments brought on those who had rebelled. But according to Rashbam, the more unusual punishment of falling into a miraculous pit of doom is actually less frightening, because that particular fate felt tied to the rebel action. The divine fire however feels more dangerous to the regular Israelites because it could happen to anyone who happens to do incense wrong. That’s what happened to Nadav and Avihu. And why did these 250 people die of divine fire? Not because they rebelled – but because Moses told them to offer the incense. Moses is responsible for their death, or at least that is a plausible perspective from the regular Israelite vantage point.
In this way, Rashbam helps us empathize with the Israelites even as they complain yet again. Martin Lockshin points out that in Rashbam’s era, medieval Christian France, Jews were often on the defensive against Christian claims that Jews have “always been wayward and unbelieving.” Rashbam, therefore, may be softening the apparent stubbornness of the Israelites in order to protect his contemporary community.
When I’ve been in Torah study with a number of people exploring the book of Numbers, I see a wide range of responses to the Israelites and their constant complaining. Some people sigh in exasperation, others leap forward to explain how hard it must have been for them, and still others debate the virtues of discipline versus compassion. It’s nice to know, reading Rashbam’s commentary, that our tradition has a place for every response the human heart can hold.
For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.