At the height of the showdown with Korach, Datan and Aviram, Moshe declares that if he is right then those rebelling will suffer a most unusual death which defies nature:
וּאִם־בְּרִיאָ֞ה יִבְרָ֣א הֹ‘ וּפָצְתָ֨ה הָאֲדָמָ֤ה אֶת־פִּ֙יהָ֙ וּבָלְעָ֤ה אֹתָם֙ וְאֶת־כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָהֶ֔ם
”But if God brings about a new creation and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them and all’’(Bamidbar 16, 30).
It seems that Moshe chose this dramatic punishment at a specific time and God was
duty-bound to carry it out. What gave Moshe the confidence to declare the exact nature of his enemies’ demise without knowing if God will deliver? How could Moshe be so sure that God was going to uphold Moshe’s honor when, at times, God does not seem to uphold His own honor.
Titus’ desecration of God
Although it seems unrelated to our Parsha, the Midrash brings the story of Titus – the notorious Roman general who destroyed the Second Temple. Few in the history of the world provoked God like Titus. He had relations with a prostitute in the Holy of Holies – a part of the Temple that the High Priest could only enter once a year on Yom Kippur. Despite this audacious and public challenge to God’s authority, God did not defend His own honor. Which begs the question of how Moshe could be so confident that God was going to defend Moshe’s honor?
A commentary on Midrash Tanchuma, Be’er Hamamorim, makes a fascinating observation based on the following Midrash:
רַבִּי הוּנָא וְרַבִּי יִרְמְיָה בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בְּרַבִּי יִצְחָק אָמְרֵי, מָצִינוּ שֶׁוִּתֵּר הַקָּבָּ’ה עַל עֲבוֹדַת כּוֹכָבִים וְעַל גִּלּוּי עֲרָיוֹת וְעַל שְׁפִיכוּת דָּמִים, וְלֹא וִתֵּר עַל מָאֳסָה שֶׁל תּוֹרָה
“Rebbe Huna and Rebbe Yirmiya in the name of Rebbe Shmuel the son of Rebbe Yitzchak said: We have found that God will overlook idolatry, adultery, and murder but not the abuse of Torah.” (Eichah Rabbah, Petichta 2 and Pesikta D’Rav Kahana 15)
It seems that there was more at stake regarding Korach’s confrontation with Moshe than with Titus’ confrontation with God. The despicable act of Titus could be put in the category of idolatry (although sexual immorality and murder were soon to follow). He thought of himself as more powerful than God. Yet God did not see fit to strike Titus dead on the spot. Granted, when Titus challenged God again, God chose to humiliate him. The most powerful man in the world was no match for one of the world’s smallest and most insignificant creatures – the gnat. It flew into
Titus’s nostrils, drove him crazy and grew large enough to eventually kill him.
The rebellion of Korach had the honor of the Torah at stake?
Korach was questioning whether Moshe was indeed a true prophet who faithfully transmitted God’s law. According to the Midrash, Korach asked Moshe whether a Talit that is all blue (made entirely of tekhelet) needs a blue string of tekhelet, or whether a room full of Torah scrolls needs a Mezuzah. When Moshe answered in the affirmative, Korach accused Moshe of making up laws that made no sense.*
דְּבָרִים אֵלּוּ לֹא נִצְטַוֵּיתָ עֲלֵיהֶם, וּמִלִּבְּךָ אַתָּה בּוֹדְאָם “You were not commanded these things, you made them up”(Midrash Tanchuma Korach, 2:1).*
When Moshe had enough
Moshe attempted to reason with Korach, Datan and Aviram. What enabled Moshe to finally let go and punish Korach? Perhaps this story in the Midrash explains Moshe’s change in attitude:
מַעֲשֶׂה בְּאֶחָד שֶׁהָיָה הוֹלֵךְ מֵאֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל לְבָבֶל. כְּשֶׁהָיָה אוֹכֵל לֶחֶם, רָאָה שְׁנֵי צִפָּרִים מִתְנַצִּים זֶה עִם זֶה, הָרַג אֶחָד מֵהֶן אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ, הָלַךְ וְהֵבִיא עֵשֶׂב וְהֵנִיחוֹ עַל פִּיו וְהֶחְיָהוּ. הָלַךְ אוֹתוֹ הָאִישׁ נָטַל אוֹתוֹ עֵשֶׂב שֶׁנָּפַל מִן הַצִּפּוֹר, הָלַךְ לְהַחְיוֹת בּוֹ אֶת הַמֵּתִים כְּשֶׁהִגִּיעַ לְסֻלָּמָהּ שֶׁל צֹר, מָצָא אַרְיֵה מֵת מֻשְׁלָךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וְהֵנִיחַ אוֹתוֹ הָעֵשֶׂב עַל פִּיו וְהֶחְיָהוּ. עָמַד הַאֲרִי וַאֲכָלוֹ.
“A certain person was going from the land of Israel to Babylon. While he was eating, he saw two birds fighting with each other. One of them killed its companion. Then (the bird) got an herb, and placed it in (the dead bird’s) mouth and made it live again….When (this person) arrived at the Ladder of Tyre, he found a dead lion lying in the open. He touched the herb to its mouth and made it live. The lion got up and ate him” (Bamidbar Rabbah Korach, 18:22).
If you’re wondering what the point of the story is, the Midrash spells it out in no uncertain terms:
מַתְלָא אָמַר בֶּן סִירָא, טַב לְבִישׁ לָא תַּעֲבִיד, וּבִישָׁא לָא יִמְטֵי לָךְ
”The proverb says, “Do not do good to the evil, and evil will not happen to you” (Ibid).
This traveler from Israel to Babylon was excited to even bring a lion back to life. But he was a little too indiscriminate in who he chose to help – and it came back to bite him. Perhaps this mirrors Moshe’s challenge in dealing with Korach and his life-long nemeses Datan and Aviram.
Despite Moshe’s nature to shield everyone from punishment, Moshe realized that not everyone should be saved. There is a lesson here that mankind has failed repeatedly. There are times when evil must meet its just end. Otherwise the outcome could be catastrophic.
* For a novel insights int this Midrash hear Rabbi Soloveitchik’s famous lecture entitled: The common sense rebellion against Judaism .https://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/749191/rabbi-joseph-b-soloveitchik/the-rebellion-of-korach/