“Three Gates” Parashat Korach 5777

A story tells of a time long before the Beit HaMikdash was built, when two brothers lived and farmed on that site. One was married and had a large family while the other was single. They lived in close proximity to each other and each worked his land growing wheat. When harvest time arrived, each was blessed with a bountiful crop and piled up his grain for long-term storage. The unmarried brother, observing his good fortune, thought to himself that Hashem had blessed him with more than he needed, whereas his brother, who was blessed with a large family, could surely use more. He arose in the middle of the night and secretly took from his grain and put it in his brother’s pile. Similarly, the married brother thought to himself that he was fortunate to have children who will care for him in his old age, while his brother will depend on what he saved. He, too, arose in the middle of the night and quietly transferred grain from his pile to his brother’s. In the morning, each pondered why there was no noticeable decrease in his own pile and so they repeated the transfer the next night. These nocturnal activities went on for several nights, until one night the brothers bumped into each other. In that instant, in the dark of night, the glow of brotherly love lit up the mountain sky; they each understood what the other had been doing and fell into each other’s arms in a loving embrace. According to the legend, when Hashem saw that display of brotherly love, He selected the site for His Temple[1].

This story serves as the basis of a modern joke in which the two brothers, instead of each surreptitiously gifting grain to the other, are actually stealing from each other. One evening they bump into each other, each holding a bag of wheat that he has just stolen from his brother. A fight ensues and they slug it out until dawn. According to the legend, when Hashem saw that display of “brotherly love”, He selected the site for the Israeli Knesset.

The Talmud in Tractate Eiruvin [19a] teaches that there are three gates to Hell: “One is in the wilderness, one in the sea, and one in Jerusalem. There is one entrance in the wilderness, as it is written pertaining to Korach [Bemidbar 16:33]: ‘They and all that belonged to them went down alive into the grave (She’ol)[2], the earth covered them up and they were lost to the assembly’. In the sea there is a second entrance to Hell, as it is written regarding Jonah in the fish’s belly [Jonah 2:3]: ‘From the belly of the grave (She’ol) I cried out, You heard my voice’. A third entrance is in Jerusalem, as it is written [Isaiah 31:9]: “…says Hashem, Whose fire is in Zion and Whose furnace is in Jerusalem’”

Obviously the Talmud is not giving us a lesson in geography. What a lucky coincidence Korach started his rebellion right next to the gate to Hell! Type in “Gate to Hell” in Google Maps and you will end up in the Darvaza Gas Crater in Turkmenistan. Rav Hanoch Zundel ben Joseph, writing in the “Etz Yossef”, suggests that the Talmud is enumerating the ways in which a person can end up in Hell. One way is by rebelling against authority, as did Korach and his band of merry men. Another way is by shirking responsibility, as did Jonah[3]. A third way is by adopting the behaviour that was prevalent in Jerusalem before the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash, i.e. murder, idolatry, and adultery.

While the explanation of the Etz Yossef is appealing, it seems a bit haphazard, as the three gates to Hell do not share any common motif. By looking at the continuation of the Talmud in Tractate Eiruvin, a common motif begins to crystalize. The Talmud asks: “Are there no more entrances to Hell? Didn’t we learn that there are two palm trees in the Valley of ben Hinnom and smoke rises from between them and with regard to this we learned: …this is the entrance to Hell? [The Talmud answers]: This is not difficult, for perhaps this is the entrance in Jerusalem.” How can one suggest that there are three gates to Hell when there is clearly a fourth gate in the Valley of ben Hinnom! It must be, therefore, that the one in the Valley of ben Hinnom is the same as the one in Jerusalem[4] discussed earlier, and so the three-gate hypothesis still stands.

The problem is that this entire discussion seems completely and entirely superfluous. It is common knowledge that the Valley of ben Hinnom is in Jerusalem[5]. So it is patently obvious that the Jerusalem Gate and the Valley of ben Hinnom Gate are one and the same. And yet the Talmud concludes with the words “Perhaps this is the entrance in Jerusalem”. Perhaps? Of course it is!

I propose that the Talmud is referring to three ways in which leaders can fail, and by doing so, can drag their constituents with them into the bowels of Hell. The first ruinous leadership is the type espoused by Korach. While Korach coyly plays the part of a person representing the majority, he has a total of a little more than two hundred and fifty followers. Instead of taking his gripes to Moshe, he takes them to the public square so as to foment dissent, leveraging crowd dynamics to dispose of Moshe. Korach cynically used the people to further his own agenda and this kind of leadership leads directly to Hell.

Jonah took a different, but equally ruinous, path. Jonah was given responsibility and he ran from it, as fast as he could swim. A leader who fears leading his constituents will end up willy-nilly in Hell.

What about Jerusalem? One of the characteristics of many politicians is that they will bend over backwards in order not to give a definitive answer, even to – especially to – the most important questions. A recent example of this kind of behaviour is the testimony of Attorney General Jeff Sessions before the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. The committee is tasked to investigate any possible collusion between the Trump Administration and Russia. Sessions testified for nearly an hour and said nearly nothing. In the words of Late Night television host Steven Colbert, Sessions “can’t recall what he forgot to remember”. Notice the topography of the gate to Hell in the Valley of ben Hinnom: It lies “between two palm trees”, trees that are symbolic of the righteous [Psalms 92:13]: “The righteous will bloom like the date palm”. There, under those shady fronds, lies a smoking pit, a Hellish exhaust pipe. It is understandable why a leader would want to speak in double-talk. By speaking definitively and clearly, he will unavoidably reduce the amount of people who agree with his policies. If he comes out on the side of free choice, he will alienate Tea Party Republicans. If he wants to expand the size of existing settlements, Peace Now will look elsewhere. The use of words like “perhaps” and “I don’t recall” help to blur the picture, increasing his electability. But make no mistake: a leader who would rather maximize the size of his flock than to lead them down a path that he believes in, will end up, together with his flock, in the depths of Hell.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and HaRav Chaim Nosson Eliyahu ben Lana.

[1] I have taken this story nearly verbatim from an article written by Dr. Ari Zivotofsky called “What’s the Truth about . . . the Legend of Two Brothers and the Temple Mount?” from Jewish Action [Summer 2013]. Dr. Zivotofsky shows that the story has no Jewish basis. “It appears that the first written reference to the legend is found in a non-Jewish French book by Alphonse de Lamartine published in Paris in 1835. De Lamartine claims to have heard the legend from an Arab peasant while visiting Palestine in 1832 and that the Arabs claim that this story explains how King Solomon chose the location to build the House of Hashem. It seems that Jews read this book, identified with the message of the story, adapted it and rapidly disseminated it.”

[2] According to the Talmud, She’ol is one of the seven names of hell.

[3] Jonah ended up in the “Belly of the Whale” (old Kosher restaurant in Binghamton) after he ran away from Hashem, Who wanted Jonah to go to Nineveh to warn them of their imminent destruction.

[4] The Valley of Hinnom is the modern name for the valley surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City, including Mount Zion, from the west and south.

[5] In the discussion of the borders of the Tribe of Yehuda, we read that [Joshua 15:8] “the border went up by the Valley of ben Hinnom to the south side of the Jebusite; that is Jerusalem”.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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