Midrash Tanchuma Korach: Titus and the Gnat

Arch of Titus

To understand why  Korach’s end came in a frightening, public display of G-d’s domination over nature, the Midrash Tanchuma shares the story of another infamous rebel.

But first, the Midrash Tanchuma sets down the ground rules. G-d has lots of tools in His tool chest. 

” G-d  has not created one thing in vain. Sometimes the Holy One Blessed Be He, accomplishes His mission by means of a frog, by means of a gnat, by means of a wasp, or by means of a scorpion.” 

Titus, the Roman General went beyond his mission to destroy the Second Temple.  He brought prostitutes into the Holy of Holies and blasphemed G-d.  Yet Titus was brought down by a seemingly insignificant display of G-d’s domination of nature. 

“G-d, said, ‘O you wicked one, son of a wicked one, I am sending against you a tiny creature, the least of My creatures, to eradicate you from the world.’ A gnat entered his nostril, and stayed in his nostril for three years… When he died they split open his head and found that (the gnat had grown) to be like a partridge and a sparrow and its claws were as hard as copper.”

The gnat in his head seems to be an obvious punishment for the power that went to his head. A divine punishment that fit the crime. The Midrash Tanchuma illustrates that Titus got the message.

“When Titus passed by a place where blacksmiths were working and (the gnat) heard the sound of iron, it was still. Whenever a gentile (blacksmith) would pass him, [Titus] would hire him for four dinars and say to him, ‘Bang your hammer in front of me the whole day.’ And when he would do this the whole day, [Titus] would give him his four dinars. But when a Jewish (blacksmith)passed him, he would say to him, ‘Take your hammer] and bang it and I will give you your wage.’ And he would bang the whole day. [But] when he was about to leave him and the Jew would say to [Titus], ‘Give me my wage,’ he would answer and say to him, ’it is enough for you that you see your enemy like this.”

Unlike Titus, Korach may have been more driven by jealousy than power, but it threatened a complete break down of leadership for Moshe and Aharon the High Priest.  So it had to be put down in a manner  that showed G-d’s utter rejection of Korach and his followers — with the earth swallowing them up. 

Interestingly enough, for Moshe, it  wasn’t a power struggle. According to Midrash Tanchuma, he told Korach that he didn’t seek his role as the leader of the Jewish People.  Thus Korach, like Titus, was actually staging a  direct rebellion against  G-d’s sovereignty, because Korach was questioning G-d’s choice of  leaders – Moshe and Aaron.

Yet, despite the enormity of the uprising, Moshe, is the consummate savior of the Jewish People.  He argued with G-d on so many occasions when God was about to exact severe judgment on the Jewish People.  Moshe even attempts to reason with Korach, Datan and Aviram. Perhaps this next story in the Midrash Tanchuma explains why Moshe had to finally let go.   

“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. The proverb says, “Do not do good to the evil, and evil will not happen to you.”

This traveller from Israel to Babylon was excited to even bring a lion back to life. But he  was a little too indiscriminate in his mission- 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 are times you have to let the evil meet its just end. Otherwise it could lead to a far worse outcome.

Finally, how do we know Korach got the message?  Midrash Tanchuma provides this famous episode:

“Rabba bar bar Hannah said: One time it happened that we were traveling on the road, when a certain Arab merchant said to me: ‘Come, I will show you chasms of Korach.’ I went and saw two fissures out of which was coming smoke. He took a ball of clipped wool, steeped it in water, placed it on a spearhead, and raised it over them. Then he said to me: ‘Listen, what do you hear?’ I actually heard them saying: ‘Moses and his Torah represent truth, but they (i.e., Korach and his companions) are liars.”

While Korach repented, the Talmud (Gitten 56B) relates a story which shows that Titus was so evil, he never changed his views. Titus was the uncle of the great Jewish sage Onkelos who is known for his famous translation of the Bible to Aramaic.

“Onkelos bar Kalonikos, the son of Titus’s sister, wanted to convert to Judaism. He went and raised Titus from the grave through necromancy, and said to him: ‘Who is most important in that world where you are now? ‘ Titus said to him: ‘The Jewish people.’ Onkelos asked him: ‘Should I then attach myself to them here in this world?’ Titus said to him: ‘Their commandments are numerous, and you will not be able to fulfill them. It is best that you do as follows: Go out and battle against them in that world, and you will become the chief, as it is written: “Her adversaries have become the chief” (Lamentations 1:5), which means: Anyone who distresses Israel will become the chief.’ Onkelos said to him: ‘What is (your)  punishment  in the next world?’ Titus said to him: ‘’that which (I) decreed upon myself  (that my body be burned and the ashes spread over the seven seas). Every day (my) ashes are gathered, and they judge (me), and they burn (me) , and they scatter (me) over the seven seas.”

PS: As someone who was privileged to be influenced by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, I urge everyone to get their hands on his profound article on this Parsha entitled: The Common Sense rebellion Against  Torah Authority.  

*These stories appear at the end of Midrash Tanchuma Korach in the highly acclaimed “Zichron Aharon” edition as well as Midrash Rabba. However, in some earlier editions of Midrash Tanchuma  these stories appear in next week’s Parsha; Chukat. A leading commentary to Midrash Tanchuma “Beer Ha-amorim” says these stories  indeed belong in Korach and it was an editor’s mistake to put them in Chukat.

About the Author
My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. Otherwise, I work US hours as Director of Marketing for a US Biotech. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem. I grew up in Brookline, Mass. Our last stop was Teaneck, NJ
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