Korach was one of the villains of the Bible. He fomented a coup against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of arrogance, of despotic exploitation of the people. "All the congregation are holy and God is in their midst!", he protested. "Why then would you exalt yourselves over the community of God?" (Numbers 16:3.)
Moses tried to reason with Korach and his followers, but to no avail. Korach's punishment was swift and spectacular: "The earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them up… And they went down alive into the nether world, the ground covered them up and they were lost from the midst of the congregation" (16: 31 – 33). The Talmud says that, to this day, they are still alive below ground and that they declare repeatedly, "Moses is true and his Torah is true!" (Sanhedrin 110b.)
Korach and his coterie of rebels seem condemned to eternal torment and recrimination in a talmudic equivalent of hell. But their story has a remarkable sequel.
Centuries later, the Jews had entered the land of Israel, desecrated it through idolatry, immorality and bloodshed, and incurred divine wrath. The Babylonians swept into Israel, destroyed the Temple, sacked Jerusalem and expelled the Jews from their land.
Jeremiah chronicled and mourned this cataclysm in the book of Lamentations, read every year on Tishah b'Av, the ninth of Av, anniversary of the destruction of the Temple. (The fast this year begins on Saturday
We need not allow the consequences of our failings to bury us in the gloom
Inspired by the spirit of prophecy, Jeremiah scattered sparks of hope and divine mercy through his book. An instance of this is the verse describing the fate of the Temple gates. Lamentations 2:9 says, "Her gates sank; [God] destroyed and smashed her bolts."
The Midrash Aggadah says that, unlike the bolts of the gates, the gates themselves were not destroyed. They were preserved because, when Solomon dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem, the gates opened to admit the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments and a Torah scroll (Psalm 24:9). Such gates could not be broken. Instead, says the Midrash, they miraculously sank into the ground intact.
The implication is, of course, that they are hidden away for when they will be needed again. One day, a third Temple will be built and the gates will be used again.
But Bnai Yisaschar (Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, 1783 – 1841) takes this further. He traces the story of these gates in midrashic lore, quoting the midrashic Divrei Hayamim shel Moshe which says that when the gates went down into the ground, they were seized by none other than Korach.
Bnai Yisaschar explains this idea. Korach, he points out, was a Levite (Numbers 16:1), and the Levites were responsible for opening and closing the gates to the Temple. In fact, I Chronicles 26:1 records explicitly that descendants of Korach were gatekeepers in the Temple.
This Midrash does not just provide a neat match of gates with a gatekeeper. Rather, it offers a profound and audacious assertion of hope when we need it most in the depths of our Tishah b'Av grief. Even Korach is not lost. Down there, in his mournful disgrace, Korach still fulfils his destiny as a Levite gatekeeper, caring for the symbol of our hope and assuring us that we have a future.
As we look further, we find more brightness in Korach's story. The Talmud asserts that Korach has a share in the world to come (Sanhedrin 109b). And another midrash quotes Korach's sons as saying, "The one who raises up the gates will raise up our father" (Tanna Devey Eliyahu 30). When we see the third Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem, we will meet up with Korach at its gates.
Bnai Yisaschar is relentless in his rehabilitation of Korach. He cites Psalm 92: which talks about the righteous in the Temple in Jerusalem: "The righteous will flourish like a date palm, they will be mighty like the cedar. Planted firmly in God's house, they will flourish in the courtyards of the Lord."
The Hebrew for the opening phrase of this verse in Psalms is Tzaddik katamar yifrach and Bnai Yisaschar cites the comment of the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi, 1534 – 1572) that the last letters of these words spell "Korach".
The culminating, climactic realisation of this verse will not be Miriam, or Maimonides, or Deborah or Rashi, but Korach returned to the Temple, his sin cleansed away and his righteousness restored.
We can take a cue from this for our own Tishah b'Av experience. Like Korach, we are in the midst of punishment: the Babylonian exile ended in our return to Israel and the building of a second Temple, but we fell short again and were exiled by the Romans, beginning the diaspora that scattered us across the world and wrenched our homeland from our possession for nearly two thousand years.
But, like Korach, we need not allow the consequences of our failings to bury us in inactivity, silence and gloom. Rather, in the very midst of divine retribution, we can firmly assert that "Moses is true and his Torah is true", fulfilling our mission as God's covenant people and nurturing the hope that links us to our destiny: a return to God and to the Promised Land, where the third Temple will once again diffuse God's spirit in our midst.