Rashi writes that the episodes of the mekalel and the mekoshesh happened at the same time; both wrongdoers suffered the same fate of being imprisoned, albeit separately, until Hashem revealed what should be done with them. Despite the superficial parallel, there is a subtle difference in the description of how each case was handled. In our parsha we are told, “Vayanichu’hu bamishmar lifrosh lahem al pi Hashem,” (24:12) the mekalel was jailed until what should be done was revealed to them, plural. In parshas Shlach, the Torah says that the mekoshesh was jailed “ki lo porash ma yei’aseh lo,” (15:34) because it had not yet been revealed what to do with him, singular. Why the switch between singular and plural? The end of the parsha may provide a clue.
After telling us that Bnei Yisrael took the mekalel out and stoned him, the Torah adds, “U’Bnei Yisrael asu ka’asher tzivah Hashem es Moshe.” (22:23) It’s a seemingly unnecessary addition, as the pasuk just told that that Bnei Yisrael did as they were instructed. Seforno, Netzi”v and Ohr haChaim (who has other answers as well) suggest that the Torah is emphasizing that Bnei Yisrael carried out the punishment of the mekalel simply to fulfill Hashem’s command, not with any sense of vindictiveness. Meshech Chochma (see also Tiferes Shlomo), however, reads the end of the pasuk as referring not to the punishment that was administered, but rather as referring back to the mitzvah of baking the lechem ha’panim described earlier in the perek. According to one view quoted in Rashi, it was this parsha of lechem ha’panim that the mekalel ridiculed. Why would G-d want us to offer 9 day old bread instead of fresh baked loaves? What sense did it make? The Torah closes the episode by telling us that not only was the mekalel punished, but his scoffing had no effect on the community. Bnei Yisrael made and offered lechem ha’panim as they had done beforehand, without regard to the questions and doubts raised by the mekalel.
The story of the mekoshesh is the flipside of that of the mekalel. Instead of sowing seeds of doubt in the community, the mekoshesh’s goal was to strengthen the community’s commitment. Chazal tell us that when Bnei Yisrael heard that they would have to spend 40 years in the desert, they thought all was lost. The mekoshesh deliberately was mechalel Shabbos to show that life would go on as before – there was still a kedushas Shabbos, still obligations and requirements that needed to be fulfilled. Maharasha goes so far as to ask why the mekoshesh’s actions are not classified as a melacha she’aina tzericha l’gufa considering that he had no real practical use for the melacha performed.
Rashi tells us that the mekalel and the mekoshesh did not share the same prison cell – perhaps the message is that they were worlds apart in what they were trying to accomplish.
Returning to our original question, the reaction to the mekoshesh was to try to figure out what to do with him, singular. The community’s belief and observance was at least as strong as before, if not stronger, due to the mekoshesh’s self sacrifice to make the point that Torah and mitzvos were still in force. He, as an individual, would still have to suffer consequences. The reaction to the mekalel was to figure out where they, plural stood – whether the community as a whole had been impacted by the words of the mekalel, by his questions and scoffing. The conclusion of the parsha resolved not only the question of his fate, but the question of the community’s as well. ( There is a piece in the She’eiris Menachem that led to the ideas in this post.)