The sons of Eliab were Nemuel, Dathan and Abiram they are Dathan and Abiram, the chosen of the congregation who incited against Moses and Aaron in the assembly of Korah, when they incited against the Lord. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and Korah, when that assembly died, and when fire destroyed two hundred and fifty men, and they became a sign. [Numbers. 26: 9-10]
There is an axiom that there is no chronology in the Torah. The Torah could be talking about something that took place before a previous event in the text.
Fair enough. But why repeat in this week’s Torah portion the story of Korah when it was fully told three weeks earlier? And why stick the latest reference in the census of the Israelites? And what is this new Hebrew word Hitzu, a verb not seen in this or other Torah portions?
Chaim Ibn Attar, known as the Or Hachayim, addresses these questions by defining the role of Dotan and Aviram. The sage, who lived some 300 years ago in Salonika examines virtually every nuance in the text to determine what the Torah really means to say. Although he does not cite sources, he draws heavily from Kabbalah and the Midrash. Centuries after his death, the leading scholars continue to study the Or Hachayim as a religious duty.
The Or Hachayim asserts that the Torah wants you to know that it is talking about none other than the evil duo, Dotan and Aviram. Although they were swallowed up along the rest of Korah’s gang and not included in the census, G-d saw the need to remind us of the tragedy that Dotan and Aviram brought upon the Israelites.
What did they do? They “incited” Korah and his assembly against Moses and Aaron. Dotan and Aviram were the reason that Korah and 250 of his men were swept into the bowels of the earth and then burned. Dotan and Aviram were to blame for the ensuing plague that killed 14,000 others who sought to continue the coup against Moses and Aaron.
“It seems that the verse comes to tell us that they [Dotan and Aviram] were the reason for the action of Korah,” the Or Hachayim writes, “that G-d wanted to publicize the wicked who were the cause of the evil that was done.”
The use of the word “incite” is also not arbitrary. The Or Hachayim asserts that Dotan and Aviram were behind everything. They caused the sins of Korah’s supporters. They incited Korah to launch his well-funded campaign against the divinely chosen leadership.
What was worse was that Dotan and Aviram knew how to keep Korah and his followers. The two advisers could detect and quell any sign of dissent in their ranks.
“This comes to teach that even though the Jews converged on Moses and Aaron, they would have withdrawn if not for these two wicked people,” the Or Hachayim writes.
History is replete with examples of people with a personality to influence those far greater than them. They began as advisers and eventually turned into oracles of healers. Escaping their clutches would be impossible.
Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin could be seen as a descendant of Dotan and Aviram. Rasputin grew up a peasant, the lowest on the totem pole in 19th Century Russia. How he rose from the Siberian village of Pokrovskoye to the elite in Saint Petersburg has dominated the careers of historians, novelists and film writers. What is undisputable is that within a few years in Saint Petersburg, Rasputin drew the elite of Russian society around him, including Czar Nicholas II and his empress Alexandra.
The royal couple were convinced that Rasputin was not only a mystic rather also a healer. He promised to cure the only heir to the throne from hemophilia, and until the end the royals believed him. Over the next decade, Rasputin, with the encouragement of the queen, influenced and finally dominated the Russian leadership. He survived the condemnations of church leaders, accusations of rape and bribes and manipulating the Cabinet.
Like Rasputin, Dotan and Aviram were blamed for manipulating Korah, recruiting his followers, defaming Moses and Aaron, and finally blocking any reconciliation before the final showdown. But not everybody in Korah’s camp was charmed by the two members of the Reubenite tribe. The doubters were the three sons of Korah — Assir, Elkanah and Abiassaph. They helped plan the coup against Moses and Aaron.
When the protests turned ugly, the three sons were unsure whether to continue. On one hand, Assir, Elkanah and Abiassaph were dismayed by the influence of Dotan and Aviram and their take-no-prisoners approach. On the other hand, the children were in this mess hip-deep and didn’t know how to get out without upsetting their very rich and now powerful father.
Without putting it into words, the three sons of Korah began to regret their actions. This was followed by unspoken repentance. And when the earth split and their father and all of his followers fell into the crevice, Assir, Elkanah and Abiassaph remained on solid ground. They huddled together as everything else collapsed. It was as if they were on a ship mast watching their mates drown below.
During World War I, Rasputin was assassinated by Russian noblemen who feared the end of the empire. Rasputin’s daughter fled to France and became a lion tamer in a circus.
The sages say the three sons of Korah saw the carnage below and began singing. Their songs to G-d were one of thanks and praise. G-d had read their thoughts and saved them. Their songs were included by King David in what we know as Psalms.
Korah’s sons, however, did not die. [Numbers. 26: 11]