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When you can’t avoid the abyss, climb out of it

Everyone knows that Korah and his whole family died in the most famous sinkhole of all time. But what if they didn't all die?
The earth swallows Korah and 'all that pertained to him.' (via YouTube)
The earth swallows Korah and 'all that pertained to him.' (via YouTube)

There is a point in Parshat Pinchas where it is easy to drift off and lose concentration. For 60 verses in chapter 26, the Torah recounts the results of the census taken prior to the nation’s entry into the Promised Land. Perhaps in ancient times, people enjoyed reading the lists of names recorded for posterity — they likely recognized and knew at least some of them. To the modern reader, however, it conjures up memories of those endless graduation ceremonies where the name of each graduate is read and the audience is compelled to patiently listen before and after their respective pride and joy is called, until names starting with Y and Z begin to appear, confirming that even “endless” eventually ends. These lists simply do not resonate the way they may once have done.

Buried in the middle of the list of names, however, is a surprising verse:

“But the sons of Korah did not die” (Numbers 26:12).

This verse is astonishing not only because of its placement in the list of names, but, more importantly, perhaps, because it directly contradicts an earlier verse:

“The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, with all the people who pertained to Korah and all their possessions — they and all that was theirs descended alive to Sheol — the earth closed over them and they perished from the midst of the assembly” (Numbers 16:32).

This second verse assures the Torah’s readers that anyone genetically connected to Korah perished in a sinkhole, never to be heard from again. What, then, was the actual fate of Korah’s offspring? The first verse implies that Korah’s children survived, but then who were “all the people pertaining to Korah” who “perished” in the second verse?

Another puzzling aspect of the text is that most commentators date the Korah episode to the second year of the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert. The census in Parshat Pinchas is tabulated during the final year in the desert. A great deal of time has passed. Why does the Torah see fit to inform the reader of the fate of Korah’s children decades after the event?

According to Targum Yonatan (on 26:11), the sons of Korah did not participate in the rebellion. They remained loyal to Moses and were spared the punishment inflicted on Korah. Ramban suggests, in his comment on Numbers 16:32, that these sons were righteous adults who had already chosen their path in the world at the time that the earth swallowed up the rest of those who pertained to Korah.

If that is the case, then the people “pertaining to Korah” were either slaves (as Rabbenu Bechor Shor comments [Numbers 26:11]), or people who were so enamored of Korah that they became super-fans, and part of his inner circle (see Ramban, there).

Perhaps, as the Ohr Hachaim (Numbers 26:11) explains, the Torah records the survival of Korah’s offspring during the census in Parshat Pinchas in order to emphasize the fact that Datan and Aviram were the actual instigators of the rebellion. As their rebellion was baseless, their families were summarily destroyed – they are not named in the census. In contrast, Korah did have some redeeming qualities — the proof of which is that he raised sons who were righteous and upstanding enough to be include in this census.

What, then, prevented the sons from joining their father’s rebellion?

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 752) explains that Moses, with the humility for which he was known, attempted to make peace with the wrongdoers and to convince them of their folly. The sons of Korah were sitting with their father when Moses arrived to castigate him, and they faced a lose-lose dilemma: if they stood for Moses when he arrived, they would be disrespecting their father; if they didn’t stand for Moses, they would be ignoring the requirement to rise in reverence for one’s elders and teachers. According to the midrash, they chose to stand in support of Moses, which simultaneously rejected their father.

The midrash explains how the sons of Korah survived, but why are they listed as not having died? Why not specify that they had lived? Or simply recount their numbers for the census, which would make it clear by the number (!) that they had lived?

Rashi (on 26:11) explains that initially Korah’s sons supported the rebellion but at the last moment they reversed course. The “thoughts of repentance” in their hearts were enough to rescue them from their father’s fate, but not enough to grant them life (hence, the equivocation of them not having died). Rashi understand the verse to mean that a “high spot” was was reserved for them in Hell – presumably a far better fate than that of their father.

Like Rashi, Maharal is reluctant to call the sons of Korah truly righteous. He points out that they had “thoughts” of repentance – which is to say, they contemplated it, but never took the concrete actions that true repentance requires. They therefore were swallowed up with “all who pertain to Korah,” but because of their positive thoughts, they did not sink all the way to the depths, as the other rebels did. Just as their repentance was incomplete, so too their forgiveness was incomplete, and it was insufficient for them to merit complete salvation.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his seminal work, Halakhic Man, used lessons gleaned from the story of Korah’s sons’ survival to address concepts in the repentance process. Contemplating teshuva, and not acting on it, is the first level of repentance: the sinner’s status as an evil person is removed. But without confession (Vidui), a verbal acknowledgement of the sin, atonement cannot be fully realized.

The Talmud (in Sanhedrin 110a), explaining just how late Korah’s sons’ change in heart was in coming, paints them in a better light: inside the earth, they “recited songs of praise.” Rabba bar bar Chana claimed to have heard them saying, “Moshe and his Torah are true and they (referring to themselves) are liars!” That timing leaves them open to rebuke themselves, even if they escape death with this measure of repentance. It also suggests a level of goodness in them that the other commentators do not mention.

It would seem that the sons’ repentance was more complete than some, including Rabbi Soloveitchik, suggested. They atoned for their misdeeds, and were then allowed to live. Rashi (on Psalms 42:1) comments that these sons did compose psalms, “ascended from” the underground and “the Holy Spirit rested upon them, whereupon they prophesied concerning the exiles, the destruction of the Temple, and the Davidic dynasty.”

There are indeed 11 psalms attributed to Korah’s descendants, proving that people can rise to the loftiest of spiritual heights, even after tumbling down into the abyss (and not only literally). Perhaps that is why one of the psalms attributed to the sons of Korah was selected to be recited prior to the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah — the day that serves as the lynchpin for the repentance season.

Some argue that these sons, were devoured by the earth in the Israelites’ second year in the wilderness and were “lost to the congregation” but eventually were liberated, due to their repentance. The description in Parshat Korah that implies that no one survived thus reflects the onlookers’ presumption. 38 years later, these sinners emerge as saved repentant sons, prompting the people to exclaim: “Korah’s sons are not dead!”

Alternatively, rather than understand the sons “miraculous” return from the “dead” literally, perhaps the verse is metaphorically teaching us that despite having repented and returned to God, the nation was hesitant to accept them as full-fledged members of the community. Would anyone be willing to marry their daughters off to a descendant of Korah, for example? The text says that they “did not die,” but did they really “live”? Does the Jewish community today unreservedly and wholeheartedly embrace those who repudiate their earlier sins?

Where Korah himself provides the paradigm for a certain kind of sinner, his sons can be understood to be strong examples of the process of redemption, and the place for repentance in the community at large.

About the Author
Dr. Chana Tannenbaum lectures at Bar Ilan University, Michlelet Herzog, and Matan. She has worked as a Jewish educator, in teaching and administration, for more than 30 years. She earned her doctorate at Yeshiva University, where she was also the recipient of the Baumel award, given to the most outstanding faculty member throughout Yeshiva University. Dr. Tannenbaum made aliyah with her family in 1997, moving to Nof Ayalon.
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