Author's Note on Parshat Korach
Date: June 26, 2020
4 Tammuz 5780
Parshat Korach recounts the story of Korach’s rebellion. The basic facts are well known – Korach, Datan, Aviram and Ohn along with a band of some 250 followers staged a revolt. They challenged Moses and Aaron arguing that, because the entire community was holy, Moses and Aaron should not take over the entire operation. The challenge was suppressed when the Earth opened up and swallowed the rebels, leaving Moses and Aaron to deal with even more complaints from a new set of post-revolution rabble rousers.
But what really happened to Korach? Looking closely at the text (Chapter 16, verses 23-35), it is not clear. Yes, the Earth opened up. Yes, the followers of Korach were swallowed up. The text even says that Datan and Aviram met their doom. But what about Korach? (See also Psalm 106, verses 17-18, which recounts the events and says that the earth opened up and swallowed the congregation of Datan and Aviram but does not mention Korach at all.)
This ambiguity is noted in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 110a, where the opinion is recorded that Korach did not die by being swallowed up by the Earth. Other opinions are that he died in a fire; one even says he died in both a fire and by being swallowed by the Earth. Shouldn’t the Torah have just told us clearly that Korach died? Admittedly, later in Parshat Pinchas, chapter 26 verse 10, the Torah recounts the events and suggests that Korach did get swallowed up; but even that text is not as clear as it could be. And, even if it was clear, why shouldn’t it be clear in Parshat Korach where we read the story in the first place?
The Torah is more than a history book or a book providing biographical sketches of its characters. It is a book of instruction. What we read points to something deeper than the literal text. Here, Korach represents more than a person; he represents an idea or an attribute implanted in each of us. This is alluded to in Chapter 16, verse 22, where Moses pleads with G-d to punish only those who were actually deserving of divine punishment. In his prayer, he called G-d “Keil, Elokay Ha-ruchot” – the G-d who knows our inner spirit. (Interestingly, this phrase is only used in one other place in the Torah, in Parshat Pinchas, chapter 27, verse 16 where Moses asks this attribute of G-d to look into the deeper parts of the personalities of the potential leaders in deciding on a successor to Moses.) In other words, Korach’s power to lead us astray is a spiritual power.
In Hebrew, the word “Korach” is spelled the same way as the word “Kerach.” Kerach means ice. Korach, therefore, refers to that quality of coldness represented by ice. In his arguments with Moses, Korach employed a dispassionate cold logic. When a garment is made of blue/techeilet colored material, he argued, why does it need a string of blue/techeilet? According to his logic, when a room is filled with Torah scrolls, why does it need a Mezuzah?
From time to time, we can fall victim to this cold, logical approach to our Jewishness. When things are not “logical” or do not “make sense,” it is easy to conclude that they are worthless. That spirit of Korach can take over and lead us away from the real value in our lives.
One lesson we can draw from the story of Korach is that the “spirit” of Korach never really dies – it remains within each of us. We can all apply a cold logic to convince ourselves to follow the wrong path. On those occasions when we give in to this spirit of Korach, we can be “swallowed up” by the world around us. As it says in Psalm 147, “Mashlich kar’cho ch’fitim; lifney karaso mi ya’amod?” “He hurls ice like morsels; who can withstand His cold?” Psalm 147 answers the question by reminding us that G-d sends His words (Torah) to melt the ice and allow the waters to flow. In other words, by being true to our Torah values, we manage to suppress the rebellion and keep Korach (icy coldness) at bay.
Easy to say – but how can we do that? Here, the story of Ohn can help us out. Ohn ben Pelet of the tribe of Reuven appears in the original list of Korach’s followers. However, he is never heard from again after that initial introduction.
Ohn did start out as part of Korach’s rebellious group. Ohn had what might be called “delusions of grandeur.” He was swept up on the passion of rebellion. The Talmud tells us he was saved by his wife. She told Ohn that there was no hope for him in joining up with Korach – as a Reuvenite, he would never be part of the Levi tribe. He would either be a follower of Moses or a follower of Korach; either way, there was no benefit to him. So she knocked him out with a stiff drink or two and sat outside the tent with her hair uncovered. When Korach’s officials came calling, Ohn was not available.
When the spirit of coldness (Korach) comes calling for us and threatens to cause a rebellion, we need to rely on our family, friends, and teachers for help and inspiration (and maybe a couple of L’Chaims to warm us up). Instead of being swallowed up by Korach, we can reach out and be enveloped and protected by those who really care for us and our well-being.