It happens every year on Rosh Hashanah morning. We’ve finished the Torah reading and the haftarah, and we’re ready to proceed with the central mitzvah of the day, the blowing of the shofar. But before the ba’al tekiah can recite the berakhah (blessing) and begin blowing the shofar, he must first recite (seven times in most shuls) Psalm 47.
Why do we use this particular psalm as an introduction to the blowing of the shofar? On the surface, the question seems to be an easy one. Not only does the psalm contain two direct references to shofar blowing (47:2, 7), but it envisions the shofar as an instrument through which, in the future, all peoples will acknowledge God with joy. “All you nations, join hands; sound the shofar to God with a cry of joy.” (47:2). If in the future all peoples will experience joy in proclaiming God as King of the entire world, then surely the Jewish people, the people that He has chosen for His service, should experience such joy in the present.
But there’s another aspect of Psalm 47 that makes it a particularly appropriate introduction to the blowing of the shofar. It is one of the eleven psalms expressly attributed to “the sons [i.e., descendants] of Korach.” Members of the tribe of Levi, the sons of Korach were a guild of singers (and apparently composers) in the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem. But their ancestor Korach did not exactly set a good example for them.
It was Korach who conspired with Dathan and Abiram of the tribe of Reuben to lead a rebellion against Moses. Dissatisfied with the honor of performing the duties reserved for the Levites, Korach accused Moses of usurping the leadership and priestly roles for himself and his brother Aaron. (Numbers 16:3). As a result of Korach’s challenge to the leadership of Moses, the earth opened up and swallowed him and his followers, including Dathan and Abiram and their households (16:28-34).
In telling the story of Korach (Numbers chaps 16-17), the Torah makes no mention of the fate of his sons. Only later in the book, in the course of reporting the results of the census taken of the Jewish people in anticipation of their entry into the Land of Israel, does the Torah mention them specifically. The Torah at that point relates the census of the tribe of Reuben, including the branches of that tribe that would have come from Dathan and Abiram. The Torah then relates: “These are the same Dathan and Abiram, chosen in the assembly, who agitated against Moses and Aaron as part of Korach’s band when they agitated against the Lord. Whereupon the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with Korach …The sons of Korach, however, did not die.” (26:9-11, JPS translation).
Why didn’t the sons of Korach die? Commentaries differ widely as to both their culpability and their fate, but most agree that they repented before it was too late. By waiting until the census results to tell us what happened to them, the Torah enables us to contrast them with children of Dathan and Abiram, whose line was wiped out. Both sets of sons were no doubt tempted to follow the example of their father, but one set was able to overcome that temptation while the other was not.
Not only did Korach’s sons not die, but, as noted above, they became a guild of singers in the Beit HaMikdash. Eleven of the Psalms are attributed to them, including two others (in addition to Psalm 47) that also have a liturgical use: Psalm 49, which is recited in a shiva (mourning) house; and Psalm 48, which is the shir shel yom (psalm of the day) for Monday. It thus seems that whenever we need an extra bit of merit to fuel our prayers, we turn to the sons of Korach. (Because Monday was the only day of creation of which the word tov [good] was not used [Gen. 1:6-8], it needs that extra bit of merit to bring it up to the level of the other days.) Because the negative example of their father was a formidable obstacle to their teshuva, (repentance), the extra effort that Korach’s sons needed in order to overcome that obstacle provides that extra merit.
The work of teshuva is difficult, and as Rosh Hashanah approaches, it’s easy to get discouraged. The shofar is our wake-up call, but as with all wake-up calls, it’s tempting to roll over and go back to sleep. Do we really believe that we can even begin the process of transforming ourselves? If not, why bother to try?
Thus, before blowing the shofar, we recite Psalm 47, in part to remind ourselves how difficult it must have been for the sons of Korach not only to do teshuva initially but to stay the course after witnessing their father’s fate. Compared to what they had to overcome, the obstacles to our teshuva seem petty. Yet had Korach’s sons not been able to persevere in their teshuva, we would have been deprived of the eleven psalms that were subsequently composed by them or their descendants. The Jewish people’s song would not be complete without their teshuva – or for that matter, without ours.
Ketiva vechatima tova – a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year to all.