Korach’s rebellion has reached the point of no return. Moshe has tried to convince Korach and his co-conspirators, Dathan and Aviram, to back down, but he is unsuccessful. Moshe tells the people to stand back and to take cover because bad things are about to happen [Bemidbar 16:27]: “They withdrew from around the dwelling of Korach, Dathan, and Aviram, and Dathan and Aviram went out standing upright (nitzavim) at the entrance of their tents together with their wives, their children, and their infants”. What does the Torah mean when it tells us that Dathan and Aviram were “standing upright”? Is the Torah complimenting their good posture? Rashi comments that Dathan and Aviram stood “with a haughty bearing (koma zekufa), to curse and to blaspheme”. Rashi brings a proof from Samuel I [17:16] where a nearly identical word is used in reference to Goliath, who was blowing smoke at Saul’s army. Dathan and Aviram went down to the grave convinced of their righteousness. They were indignant that their just cause was not being addressed by upper management. They were certain that they were right and that everyone else was wrong. One verse later, the earth swallows them up and they are never heard from again.

Rashi’s interpretation of the word “nitzavim” — “standing upright” — causes problems later on in the Torah. On the last day of his life, Moshe gathers all of Am Yisrael together to enter into a new covenant with Hashem. Moshe tells them that everyone, with no exceptions, will be entering the covenant [Devarim 29:9]: “You are all standing this day before Hashem: the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel”. The Hebrew word for “standing” is the same “nitzavim” that is used in the context of Dathan and Aviram. The word is so significant that it serves as the name of the parasha. Obviously we cannot interpret this word in the same way we did with Dathan and Aviram, by suggesting that Am Yisrael entered into the covenant with blasphemy and indignance[1]. Rabbeinu Bachyeh ibn Pekudah offers a way ahead by teaching that only the phrase “yatz’u nitzavim” – “went out standing [upright]” – as used in the context of Korach’s rebellion has negative connotations, while plain old “nitzavim” does not. While this explanation is about as simple as they come, it does not explain why the same word can have overtly negative connotations in one context and overtly positive connotations in another[2].

Let’s try looking from another angle. In Parashat Pinchas, the Torah takes a census of Am Yisrael. At certain points in the census, the Torah goes off on a tangent to reveal a factoid regarding a person from the tribe being counted. When the families of Dathan and Aviram from the tribe of Reuven are counted, the Torah informs us [Bemidbar 26:9-11] “They are [the same] Dathan and Aviram… who incited against Moshe and Aharon in the assembly of Korach, when they incited against Hashem. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them along with Korach, when that assembly died… Korach’s sons, however, did not die.” That doesn’t sound right. In the Torah’s description of the demise of Korach and his followers, it tells us [Bemidbar 16:32-33] “The earth beneath them opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses, and all the men who were with Korach and all the property. They, and all they possessed, descended alive into the grave; the earth covered them up, and they were lost to the assembly”. It certainly appears as if Korach’s entire family died. Further, why does the Torah mention Korach’s children together with Dathan and Aviram from the tribe of Reuven? It would have made more sense to tell us about Korach’s descendants in the verse that mentions Korach, who was a member of the tribe of Levi[3].

An aggadic section in the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [110a] discusses the demise of the children of Korach. Citing the verse “Korach’s sons, however, did not die”, the Talmud suggests that they “were placed in a high place in Hell and from there they sang praise[4] to Hashem”. Apparently they got seats in the mezzanine and it was cool enough there for them to survive the whole ordeal. Obviously the Talmud is teaching us something much deeper. It is teaching us that that the sons of Korach were not “lost to the assembly” along with the rest of their family. I suggest that while the children of Korach might have physically died along with the rest of their family, a part of their souls survived and continues to live within the soul of each and every Jew to this day.

Let’s return to the verse in which Dathan and Aviram “stand upright” before Moshe, showering him with curses as they are sucked into the bowels of the earth. The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh makes a fascinating observation. Before Dathan and Aviram exit their tents to blaspheme Hashem one last time, the Torah tells us that “[Am Yisrael] withdrew from around the dwelling of Korach”. Notice what has just happened: the rebellion has lost the support of the proletariat. Korach had tried to convince the people to reject the leadership of Moshe and Aharon, telling them [Bemidbar 16:3] “The entire congregation is holy; why should you raise yourselves above the assembly of Hashem?” When the people obey Moshe’s order to step away from Korach, it is an incontrovertible sign that Korach has lost the popular support he sought so hard to gain. Korach and his supporters knew right there and then that their rebellion was doomed. And yet, Dathan and Aviram still come out with their guns blazing[5]. The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh understands their behaviour negatively, using the verse to show that these people were bad to the core: even though all hope was lost, they still refused to give up. We’re going to propose the exact opposite hypothesis: their behaviour was archetypical Jewish behaviour and has enabled the Jewish people to survive two thousand years of exile: even when all hope is lost we still refuse to give up.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, asserts that deep down every Jew wants to remain Jewish. He is proud and zealous of his Jewish heritage, even if he does not keep all of the ritual – even if he doesn’t keep any of the ritual. The Alter Rebbe tells of the countless Jews who lived their lives detached from any vestige of Judaism but when they were forced to choose between their religion and their lives, they chose their religion. These Jews lived in 1st century Rome, in 15th century Spain and Portugal, and in 20th century Poland, Yemen, and Ethiopia. There is an innate stubbornness inside the Jewish soul that prevents the Jew from giving up and from giving in, even as all the odds are stacked against him. I suggest that this personality “flaw” was inherited from Dathan and Aviram. When the Torah tells us that “the sons of Korach did not die”, it means that the DNA of Korach, as exemplified by the “standing upright” of Dathan and Aviram, lives on in the DNA of our nation.

On the day of his death, when Moshe tells Am Yisrael “You are all standing this day before Hashem”, he is telling them that they must uphold the covenant in good times and in bad times, when it is simple to live as a Jew and when it is impossible to live as  Jew – especially when it is impossible to live as a Jew. Even when all hope is lost, we must refuse to give up. We must stand upright in the face of adversity, each in our own way, to the best of our abilities. Knowing that deep down we all contain some of Dathan and Aviram’s pepper can make this just a little bit easier.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Tzvi ben Freida, and Tzvi ben Shoshana

[1] It is interesting to note that my trusty chabad.org translation of the Torah translates the word “nitzavim” as “standing upright” when used in the context of Dathan and Aviram, and as “standing” when used in the context of entering the covenant with Hashem. The two translations are similar and yet different.

[2] Another problem with this explanation is that the word “nitzav”, when used in Samuel I in reference to Goliath, is not accompanied by the verb “yatza”. This is only problematic if we assume that Rashi and Rabbeinu Bachyeh shared the same source.

[3] See Bemidbar [16:58] “These were the families of Levi: the family of the Libnites, the family of the Hebronites, the family of the Mahlites, the family of the Mushites, the family of the Korahites.

[4] The daily psalm for Monday ]Chapter 48] begins with the words “A song, a psalm of the sons of Korach”. The psalm recited before shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah begins the same way.

[5] Think of the “Black Knight” in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.