Mordechai Silverstein

Rising to the Challenge 

The scene could not have been more traumatic or dramatic. Moshe’s confrontation with his detractors, men who challenged the very essence of his leadership – Korah, Datan, Aviran and On ben Pelet, ended in a supernatural flourish, when the earth swallowed them up:

And Moshe said: ‘By this you will know that the Lord sent me to do these things… if these die like the death of every human… then the Lord has not sent me… but if the Lord will create something and the ground will open its mouth and swallow them and all they have, and they’ll go down alive to Sheol, then you will know that these people have rejected the Lord… and the earth opened up and swallowed them and their households and all the people who were with Korah and all the property… (Numbers 16:28-32)

Yet, in Parshat Pinhas, we are astonished to find out:

… who fought against Moshe and Aharon in Korah’s congregation when they fought against the Lord, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and Korah when the congregation died, when the fire consumed the two hundred and fifty men, and they became a sign. But Korah’s sons did not die.  (Numbers 26:9-11)

This development is further reinforced in the book of Psalms where we find a collection of psalms (42-49) attributed to none other than the “B’nai Korah – the sons of Korah”. In other words, it is clear that the family line was not extinguished in the rebellion against Moshe. What is lacking, then, is a resolution of this textual anomaly in the plot of the story. The following midrash offers a debate in an attempt to fill in the gap in the story:

The sons of Korah said to the righteous: “Fear not. We saw all the miracles which God has done for us,” as is said: ‘And the earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them up, and their households’ (Numbers 16:32). “And where were we in that hour? [Floating] in the air,” as is written: ‘The sons of Korah did not die” (Numbers 26:11). Said Rabbi Nehemiah, at the time the earth opened [and Korah and his followers were swallowed up,] the Holy One, blessed be He, made the sons of Korah stand like a mast and a sign (a flag), as it says: ‘As the fire devoured two hundred and fifty men, they became a sign (ibid. 26:10). And so, the sons of Korah said: “Don’t fear, righteous ones, from the terror of the day of judgment, for you will not be caught along with the wicked, just as we were not caught along with them.” (Midrash Tehillim 46:3, Buber ed. p. 273 – according to the Ashkenazi recension)

Rabbi Nehemiah presumes that the B’nai Korah were saved from the fate of their father because they did not choose to follow in his ways. It was their righteousness which set them apart and made them a paradigm for those who take their own destiny in hand and choose to do what is right. In doing so, Rabbi Nehemiah likened them to a flag raised high on the mast of a ship, elevated above the fate of their father and his followers, so all could see – a sign for all of us that it is possible to choose to be righteous no matter one’s background or upbringing.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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