Parashah of the week: Korach

“And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face” Numbers 16:4


Botticcelli's The Punishment of Korah (Wikimedia Commons)

What Moses heard was the challenge of Korah and his fellow rebels, who claimed Moses and Aaron had no right to lead the people.

Korah and his colleagues present themselves as champions of egalitarianism. They ask with apparent sincerity: Aren't all Jews holy? How can you raise yourselves above them?

In the course of this week’s portion, it becomes evident that the Infinite Source is not impressed by their motivations. Korah and company are swallowed into the earth, or consumed by Divine fire. It seems like the end of their story, but it turns out to be just the start.

Our ancient rabbis ask: “Korah was a perceptive person, so what did he see that led him to this folly?” (Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 5).

They respond that Korah prophetically foresaw a chain of great people descending from him, including Samuel the Prophet and Levites who would prophesy in the Temple.

However, they continue, Korah's foresight actually contributed to his downfall. In his arrogance, which is contrasted throughout the parashah with the humility of Moses and Aaron, he wrongly assumed that if such great people would be among his descendants, he was bound to triumph in his confrontation against the nation's leaders.

In the parashah, it seems evident that all of Korah's household have been swallowed into the earth (16:31-32), And yet, later on in the Book of Numbers, the Torah tells us that “the sons of Korah did not die” (26:11).

In subsequent texts, Korah's three sons become models of teshuvah (literally returning, often translated as repentance). By turning back from their father's egotistical ways, they earn a positive future.

One of them continues the line that Korah foresaw, eventually leading to Samuel and other righteous people (see I Chronicles 9:19).

As for the other two sons, our sages teach that they had a change of heart at the last moment, and instead of being consumed by the earth, they were given a special high place in Gehinnom (a site of punishment for our wrongdoings), where they spend eternity praising the Infinite Source. (Rashi on 26:11). Indeed many of our most heart-wrenching psalms are credited to the “Sons of Korah.”

Korah was over-confident of his own righteousness because he foresaw his honorable descendants. Ironically, it was only through his sons' teshuvah, and their deviation from his path of arrogance and egotism that they ensured that his vision was fulfilled.

Rabbi Daniel Silverstein runs Applied Jewish Spirituality

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