Parshat Masei begins with an accounting of the different places Bnei Yisrael stayed throughout their travels in the desert, beginning with the exodus and ending with their encampment on the east bank of the Yarden. According to Rashi (to 33:1), the travels are divided into three different sections. The first section goes from the exodus to the sin of the Meraglim, the second is from the Meraglim to the death of Aharon, and the third lasts from the death of Aharon to the Yarden.
Throughout Sefer Bemidbar a major theme, if not the most important one, is the transition from the generation leaving Mitzrayim to the generation that will enter Eretz Yisrael. One can understand Rashi’s division by explaining that until the Cheit HaMeraglim, Bnei Yisrael were still considered the old generation leaving Mitzrayim. From the Meraglim until the death of Aharon is the transition, and after the death of Aharon is the new generation that will enter Eretz Yisrael.
It is apparent throughout Sefer Bemidbar (as expressed in much detail by Rabbi Jachter, following the Netziv’s introduction to Sefer Bemidbar, in his Chumash Shiurim this year) that the new generation acted on a higher level than the previous generation. But if Rashi is saying that once Cheit HaMeraglim occurred, all of a sudden Bnei Yisrael started the transition, what is the story of Korach doing between the Meraglim and the death of Aharon? Also, what are the laws of the Parah Adumah doing between the two incidents?
According to Rav Yoel Bin Nun (as he explained in a Shiur he delivered this year at TABC), the laws of the Parah Adumah are there in place of the thirty-seven years in the desert that the Torah does not record. He says that the Parah Adumah was presented here to strengthen Bnei Yisrael while they were dying in the Midbar and life was difficult. Just like one can become purified even in the worst state of impurity, so too could Bnei Yisrael be renewed even in the worst state of depression.
This explanation of Rav Yoel Bin Nun is very nice, but it does not explain what the story of Korach is doing between the Meraglim and the death of Aharon. We can circumvent this problem with Ibn Ezra’s opinion that the Korach incident took place before Cheit HaMeraglim, while Bnei Yisrael were still in Midbar Sinai. Hence, the Parah Adumah is really the only recorded section of the middle years, so we can interpret it as representing the purpose of these years.
However, Ramban and other Rishonim disagree with Ibn Ezra and claim that the Korach story occurred right after Cheit HaMeraglim, just as the Torah recorded it. According to this, the placement of Korach does not seem to make any sense. Bnei Yisrael commit the Cheit HaMeraglim, which will cause them to wait forty years in the Midbar, and we now expect a change between old generation and new generation. It does not make any sense that right after Bnei Yisrael receive this punishment, a bunch of rebels come out and continue making a mess.
Rashi explains in the beginning of Parshat Korach that when the Torah says that Korach “took” (Bemidbar 16:1), it means that he took himself to be separate from the rest of the nation. In contrast, the Pasuk right before the death of Aharon says (20:22), “And they traveled from Kadesh, and Bnei Yisrael came, all of the nation, to Hor Hahar.” Rashi explains that the Torah had to add the words “all of the nation” to show us that they were complete and ready to enter Eretz Yisrael. The incident of Korach is there to show us the status of Bnei Yisrael right when the transition started, and the Torah’s description of our unity shows us what Bnei Yisrael were like at the end of the transition. In the very beginning of the transition, Bnei Yisrael were still a nation with problems and fights even amongst themselves, but when the new generation arose, they were whole and united, ready to enter the land.
Perhaps with this we can understand a different explanation of why the Parah Adumah is located where it is. One can say that it resembles the transition. There is a famous concept regarding Parah Adumah, which is that it “purifies the contaminated and contaminates the pure.” Perhaps Hashem is telling us that this nation, which is now impure, will become purified by the new generation, and the old generation will become impure and be replaced by the pure.
This summer, the Israeli government is planning to evacuate Jews from parts of Eretz Yisrael. Unfortunately, this has caused much conflict amongst the Jewish community. If this is how we are living, then we are obviously not ready to enter the land. The Jewish nation must go into Eretz Yisrael together and not separated by massive internal battles. It would be the worst tragedy if civil war would Chas VeShalom start, for Hashem had to destroy an entire generation of Am Yisrael due to disunity. On the other hand, if we go into Eretz Yisrael together as one nation under God and His Mitzvot and Torah, we will have risen to the level of the generation entering Eretz Yisrael and will live together without conflict.