Author's Note on Parshat Korach

Parshat Korach
2 Tammuz 5781
June 12, 2021
© 2021 Paul M. Hamburger

Sherlock Holmes, the fictional master detective, and his sidekick Dr. Watson were camping in the woods. In the middle of the night, Sherlock wakes up Dr. Watson and asks him what he sees. “Millions of stars,” said Dr. Watson. “And what do you infer from that?” asked Sherlock. Watson then explained the astronomical, astrological, meteorological, and theological implications of seeing that many stars, at that time, and at that location. Watson asked Sherlock what he saw. Sherlock responded, “Watson, don’t you see? Someone stole our tent.”

Sometimes, in our rush to find the deeper meaning, we overlook what is (or is missing) right in front of us.

Parshat Korach tells 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 Moshe and Aaron arguing that, because the entire community was holy, Moshe and Aaron should not take over the entire operation. The challenge was suppressed when the Earth opened up and swallowed the rebels, leaving Moshe and Aaron to deal with even more complaints from a new set of post-revolution rabble rousers. In the end, the rebellions were quelled and the order of the priesthood was secured.

But what really happened to Korach? Looking closely at the text, it is not clear. Chapter 16, verses 32 – 35 read:

לב וַתִּפְתַּח הָאָרֶץ אֶת־פִּיהָ וַתִּבְלַע אֹתָם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּיהֶם וְאֵת כָּל־הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר

לְקֹרַח וְאֵת כָּל־הָרְכוּשׁ:

32. And the Earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men who belonged to Korah, and all their goods.

לג וַיֵּרְדוּ הֵם וְכָל־אֲשֶׁר לָהֶם חַיִּים שְׁאֹלָה וַתְּכַס עֲלֵיהֶם הָאָרֶץ וַיּאֹבְדוּ מִתּוֹךְ

33. They, and all that belonged to them, went down alive into Sheol, and the Earth closed upon them; and they perished from among the congregation.

לד וְכָל־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתֵיהֶם נָסוּ לְקֹלָם כִּי אָמְרוּ פֶּן־תִּבְלָעֵנוּ הָאָרֶץ:

34. And all Israel who were around them fled at their cry; for they said, ‘Lest the earth swallow us up also.’

לה וְאֵשׁ יָצְאָה מֵאֵת ה”י וַתּאֹכַל אֵת הַחֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם אִישׁ מַקְרִיבֵי הַקְּטֹרֶת:

35. And there came out a fire from the L-rd, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who offered incense.

Yes, the Earth opened up. Yes, the followers of Korach were swallowed up. But what about Korach?
Interestingly, Psalm 106 tells of these historical events and, in verses 17-18, explains:

יז תִּפְתַּח־אֶרֶץ וַתִּבְלַע דָּתָן וַתְּכַס עַל־עֲדַת אֲבִירָם:
יח וַתִּבְעַר־אֵשׁ בַּעֲדָתָם לֶהָבָה תְּלַהֵט רְשָׁעִים :

“The Earth opened and swallowed Datan and covered over the company of Aviram. And a fire burned in their company; a flame set ablaze the wicked.”

Again, where is Korach in this version of the story?

This ambiguity is famously noted in the Talmud, Sanhedrin page 110a, where the opinion is recorded that Korach did not die by being swallowed up by the Earth or by being burned in the fire. Another opinion is that he was both swallowed up by the Earth and burned by fire. Shouldn’t the Torah have just told us clearly that Korach died?
Admittedly, in Parshat Pinchas, chapter 26 verse 10, the Torah records the history of the events and suggests strongly 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. When we see something missing, that is a hint at a deeper meaning. In this case, here are some lessons we can take away.

Lesson 1:
In Pirkey Avot (5:17), we learn that an enduring argument is one that is for the sake of Heaven, like the one between Hillel and Shammai. The argument that will not endure is one that is not for the sake of Heaven, like the one between Korach and his followers. Why isn’t the example of a negative argument the one between Korach and Moshe? Weren’t they the two parties to the dispute?

In truth, the problems created by Korach were indeed attributable to the controversy between him and his followers. Although the Midrash indicates that Korach had a lot to say during his debate with Moshe, according to the text in the Torah, Korach did very little talking if any. Korach was the instigator and the false leader who stirred up Datan and Aviram who did all the talking. Korach started the argument, encouraged his followers, then stepped out of the way. Others were destroyed when he was nowhere to be seen.

Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky, in his book, Vedibarta Bam: And You Shall Speak of Them – Bamidbar (1977), asks the question: “Why did Korach and his people receive such a strange punishment of descending into the pit?” His answer: “Korach opposed the leadership of Moshe and Aaron. He argued, ‘The entire community is holy; why rise above the assembly of G-d?.’” Korach, in effect, was advocating for a government of anarchy; a government without leadership. Turning to Pirkey Avot (3:2), we read:

ב רַבִּי חֲנִינָא סְגַן הַכֹּהֲנִים אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתְפַּלֵּל בִּשְׁלוֹמָהּ שֶׁל מַלְכוּת,

שֶׁאִלְמָלֵא מוֹרָאָהּ, אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ חַיִּים בָּלָעוּ .

Rabbi Chanina says, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of the government, men would swallow one another alive”.
The punishment that Korach received was a message to him and to all future generations to be careful about choosing their leaders lest the followers be swallowed alive.

Lesson 2:
In Hebrew, the word “Korach” is spelled the same way as the word “kerach.” Kerach means ice. Korach, therefore, refers to the quality of coldness. In his arguments with Moshe (as described in the Midrash), Korach employed a dispassionate logic. When a garment is made of blue/techeilet colored material, Korach 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 approach to our Jewishness. When things are not “logical” or do not “make sense” to us, it is easy to conclude that they are worthless and can be set aside. In other words, Korach’s legacy is that spiritual power to create distance between what we do and what we should do in our approach to our service of G-d.

This is alluded to in Chapter 16, verse 22, where Moshe 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 L’chol Basar” – 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 Moshe 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 Moshe.) In other words, Korach’s power to lead us astray is a spiritual power.

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:

יז מַשְׁלִיךְ קַרְחוֹ כְפִתִּים לִפְנֵי קָרָתוֹ מִי יַעֲמֹד .

“He hurls ice like morsels; who can withstand His cold?” G-d has set up that challenge in front of us.

But Psalm 147 answers the question by reminding us:

יח יִשְׁלַח דְּבָרוֹ וְיַמְסֵם יַשֵּׁב רוּחוֹ יִזְּלוּ־מָיִם .

G-d sends His words (Torah) to melt the ice and allow the waters to flow.

Just as G-d sends the challenge, He sends the remedy. In other words, by being excited and connected to our Torah values, we manage to suppress the rebellion and keep Korach (icy coldness) at bay. Korach’s dry, mechanical Judaism is defeated by an energized awareness and yearning for G-d.

Another place we see this phenomenon is when we look at what happened to Korach’s sons. Although Korach died as an unrepentant sinner, his sons did teshuvah, survived the destruction and went on to compose 11 of the 150 Psalms. In Psalm 42, we see their perspective on how we should conduct ourselves in developing our relationship with G-d. “As a deer longs for brooks of water, so my soul longs for you, G-d. My soul thirsts for the living G-d.”

A “Korach approach” to our understanding is cold and dispassionate. His sons teach us that we need to add energy, excitement, and a longing passion to our relationship with G-d.

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 indeed 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, Mrs. Ohn. 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 Moshe 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. 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.

On this Shabbos in particular, we are going to offer the opportunity to do just that. In commemoration of the 27th Yartzeit of the Rebbe, we will be having an extended fabrengen. This is our opportunity to connect and gain inspiration from one another (and maybe be warmed up by a couple of L’Chaims).