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When Moses didn't come down from Sinai, the Jews requested a replacement leader, explaining (Exodus 32:1) that

this Moses man who lifted us out of the land of Egypt — we don't know what has become of him.

Rashi, as often, considers "this" to refer to something present and visible:

The satan showed them something like the form of Moses, that they were carrying him in the air of the spread-out sky.

Of course, Moses wasn't actually dead.

Fast-forward some forty years to Aaron's death. He died and was left on a mountain, while the Jews were nearby, not on the mountain. Numbers 20:29:

The entire people saw that Aaron had died.

Rashi wonders how they saw what happened atop a mountain:

When they saw Moses and Eleazar descending — but Aaron did not descend — they asked, "Where is Aaron?" and he told them, "He is dead". They told him, "Is it possible that the angel of death can have dominion over the one who stood before the angel and stopped the plague?". Immediately, Moses begged for mercy and the service angels showed him, placed in a bed, to them. They saw and believed.

Why did they believe? That sort of evidence had been proven untrustworthy.


Source: This question (worded differently) was included, with no answer offered, in the weekly Torah Bits publication by the St. Louis Kollel, volume 20, issue 40, June 28 (Chukas), 2014.

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Perhaps the fact that it is being backed up by Moshe's word makes a difference. –  Daniel Jun 29 at 13:55
    
@Daniel, i would suggest a slight mod of your answer that Moshe's words came first, then the sign. This is now classified as prophecy. As apposed to a bizzare vision in the sky with no preface of the word of God or His prophet. –  user6591 Jun 29 at 15:53

4 Answers 4

Rabbi Ozer Alport from his weekly divrei Torah Parsha Potpourri quotes from the Pnennim Mshulchan Gevoha:

Rav Elya Meir Bloch explains that this case was different, in that Moshe had already told the people that he witnessed Aharon’s death. They didn’t believe how the angel of death could have power over Aharon, so they were shown Aharon’s image to prove the claim.

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Everyone who had seen Moses dead at Sinai was themselves dead. Just as the people believed that image, they believed this image.

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If I understand you correctly (the people who were fooled once were not fooled again: others were), then I thought of this answer. But I don't like it much. I mean, presumably a goodly number of them had told their kids of the error. –  msh210 Jul 2 at 5:41

I think one could argue that in Numbers 20:29, we have a new generation, and this generation is more aware and less likely to misread the information given.

However, a simpler explanation might be gleaned from looking at the source text for Rashi's comment on Numbers 20:29, which is the Midrash Tanchuma Chukat, siman 17 (s.v. וידבר ה׳ אל משה קח את אהרן נתפשט את אהרן). The end of that siman reads:

מיד פתח הקדוש ברוך הוא את המערה והראהו להם שנאמר ויראו כל העדה כי גוע אהרן.

Immediately, G-d opened the cave and showed it [him?] to them, as it is said: "and all the congregation saw that Aharon had died" (Num 20:29).

In this case, the agent of the vision is G-d; in the midrash quoted by Rashi in Exodus 32:1, which comes from Talmud Bavli Shabbos 89a, the agent is the satan. In Exodus, the congregation was unsure whether to believe the vision (as says the Maharsha on the gemara [ad loc.]: גם שהראוהו להם מת מסתפקים בקצת דשמא מעשה שטן הוא), and came down on the wrong side of that doubt. However, when G-d himself was doing the showing, as in Numbers 20:29, there was no doubt as to its authenticity.

A question that I would have with the above explanation, is why Rashi chose to say that the ministering angels (מלאכי השרת) did the showing, and not G-d, as in the midrash. I can only posit that the ministering angels, to Rashi, were the mechanism by which G-d did the showing, and it was still clear enough to the congregation that the agent was G-d, and not the satan.

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Interesting. But if we're going back to the source midrashim then there's no question to start with: the one Rashi comes from the g'mara and Midrash Raba whereas the other comes from the Tanchuma, so we (I assume) need not reconcile them. The question was on Rashi himself, who includes both explanations. –  msh210 Jul 2 at 5:43
    
@msh210 Indeed. Hence the last paragraph. Compare מלאכי השרת and שטן. –  magicker72 Jul 2 at 12:06

I would like to suggest an answer. We know that the Satan has permission from Hashem to play tricks on people to tempt them to sin. This can go so far, like we find in the Parsha of a false prophet (Devarim 13:3) that he can even create real miracles and we are still not allowed to follow him based on what we see, when he tells us to commit Idolatry. Similarly, by the sin of the Golden Calf, although they saw "like an image" of Moshe dead they should have understood that this was a trick from Satan to lead them to sin because regardless of Moshe being alive or dead they cannot create the Golden Calf as this is a form of Idolatry. In other words, the lesson the Jews took from this is that even if they saw something that seemed to be a reason to commit a sin they must not rely on it in order to sin. They did not take out of it that any time they see an image of a dead person it isn't true, only when it can lead to a sin and in that case it can be anything that they see, they cannot rely on it to sin.
Therefore this does not change the fact that generally by Torah law one must believe and rely on something that he sees with his eyes. A jewish court will pass judgement based on the eye-witness account of witnesses (Devarim 19:15). Therefore by Aharons passing, where they were shown an image of Aharon in his death there was no reason for them not to rely on their seeing it and to carry on with the mitzvah of mourning.

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So you're saying they were correct to believe the satan the first time and correct to believe the angels the second time, and their only error was what they did after believing the satan? Interesting. –  msh210 Jul 2 at 5:44
    
@msh210 I edited my answer to explain better what I meant. Great question by the way! –  marc-rib Jul 3 at 2:05

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