The Torah Can Conquer Even Angels
After the death of Korach and his followers, when a plague began to strike the Jewish people, Moses commanded Aaron: “Take the fire-pan and put on it fire from upon the Altar and place incense – and go quickly to the assembly and provide atonement for them” (Numbers 17:11). Commenting on this verse, Rashi cites the teaching of the Talmud (Shabbat 89a). There it is taught that Moses, when he ascended to Heaven to receive the Torah, was given the secret of the incense from the Angel of Death, as it is written: “You ascended on high, you have taken spoils” (Psalms 68:19).
The author of Sichot Mussar, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, asks a pertinent question: How is it possible that this angel, which was delegated to kill living beings, revealed to Moses the secret of the incense, since that would stop the plague from killing people?
To this question, we add three of our own:
1. Why was Moses afraid of the angels when he ascended to Heaven? Had the Holy One, blessed be He, not commanded him to do so? Why did the angels want to burn him with their fiery breath (Shabbat 88b)? Had G-d not delegated him to receive the Torah there for the Children of Israel?
2. Why did Moses have to explain to the angels that the evil inclination did not dwell among them, that they had not been made slaves in Egypt, and that the Torah did not belong to them (Shabbat 88b-89a)? They certainly knew all this. The Talmud teaches, furthermore, that Moses’ words found favor with the angels and that they gave him gifts.
3. Why did Moses ascend to Heaven to receive the Torah? The Holy One, blessed be He, could have brought it down on Mount Sinai and taught it to Moses, who would not have had to face any criticism from the angels.
As we have seen, the Torah was a treasure that G-d delighted in constantly two thousand years before Creation, as it is written: “I was then His delight every day” (Proverbs 8:30). It was therefore difficult, so to speak, for Him to part from it. This was also true for the angels, to whom the Holy One, blessed be He, constantly revealed secrets. Moses therefore had to personally bring the Torah down from Heaven, and the angels then had no other choice but to conform to G-d’s will. Moses, however, was not content with the Torah he received, for he also wanted to know everything that G-d said in Heaven and instructed the angels.
The angels therefore became irritated with Moses, and he in turn was seized with fear. G-d then told him, “Take hold of the Throne of Glory…and answer them.” In other words, explain to them that the Children of Israel must know and understand everything.
Moses then asked the angels if the evil inclination dwelled among them, or if they stole or murdered. In other words, how could the Children of Israel successfully confront the evil inclination, which brought them down to the 49th degree of impurity, if they did not receive answers to their questions? The angels possessed many secrets and had the answers to everything, and if they did not reveal these secrets to Moses, how could the Children of Israel serve their Creator? How could they understand that they must not steal or commit other sins? However if the angels revealed these secrets to Moses, the light of the Torah would enable the Children of Israel to take to the right path and thus easily rid themselves of the evil inclination (Yerushalmi Hagigah 1:5).
Moses explained to the angels that a body that is not nourished by Torah could be burned by them, and it could not measure up to the evil inclination. The Torah contains great secrets, and to confront the evil inclination one must understand the secrets inherent in the laws that the angels were aware of.
Thus the angels understood that they possessed things that did not belong to them. Without G-d’s intervention, they would have burned Moses with their breath. Having seen before them a being of flesh and blood that tried to confront the evil inclination, they decided to give him what he needed and reveal the secrets of the Torah to him. Even the Angel of Death was persuaded by Moses’ argument and became confused, thus immediately giving him the secret of the incense, endowed with the power to heal the plague.
Moses therefore enticed the angels by the words of his mouth and devoted both body and soul to the Torah. The Zohar teaches that one who devotes body and soul for the love of G-d will inherit 400 worlds in the World to Come (Zohar I:124b). Since Moses risked his life by ascending to Heaven, the Holy One, blessed be He, helped him. The one who devotes himself to Torah study with all his heart and soul, G-d will subjugate his enemies before him. The Angel of Death gave Moses the secret of the incense because he understood that he would have nothing to do if everyone was dead.
Before his death, Moses said concerning the tribe of Levi: “They shall place incense be’aphecha [before Your presence]” (Deuteronomy 33:10). Targum Yonatan ben Uziel and the Yerushalmi translate this as the incense that they presented when the Holy One, blessed be He, became angry (charon aph) at the time of the plague. Moses then blessed them: “Bless, O L-RD, his resources” (v.11), for according to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 26b), the Torah weakens the one who engages in its study (see also Keli Yakar). The Torah, which embodies the concept of the incense, can conquer even angels.
The one who devotes himself to the Torah can even subjugate the Angel of Death and survive, as it is written: “He shall live [by the words of Torah]” (Leviticus 18:5). The Talmud states that they are not meant to kill (Yoma 85b). Rather, the Torah gives life and can save the holy people from the plague.