Pinchas: The Sons of Korach Did Not Die

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas 

But the sons of Korach did not die (Bamidbar/Numbers 26:11) 

Good afternoon! 

A brief thought about individual moral responsibility: near the beginning of this week’s reading, Moshe and Elazar his priestly nephew are told to make a census of the people, so the Torah recounts a geneology by clan. It’s mentioned that Datan and Aviram, Korach’s co-leaders in rebellion against Moshe, were descendants of Reuven, and further mentions that they were swallowed up by the earth along with 250 others. So far, so good, if somewhat grisly and unpleasant. 

Then we’re told that Korach’s sons did not die along with the others. (Cf. 16:32)

Wait, what? 

Since the verse implies but does not explicitly say that Korach’s household was taken down into the earth, Rashi seems to read it both ways. Basing himself on amidrash from the Talmud, Rashi says that at first, Korach’s sons were involved in Korach’s fight with Moshe, but then they had a sense or feeling of repentance, so they were put on a special high level of Gehinnom.

Gehinnom generally means the place of punishment or purification of the dead, so how can Rashi say they didn’t die but were in a high platform in hell? Doesn’t sound like such a great reward to me! 

Going back to the source in the Talmud, (Sanhedrin 110a) we find that Rashi left out the last part of the midrash: yes, Korach’s sons went to Gehinnom but they dwelled in a spot where they could sing songs, presumably to God. A later commentary says that on the merit of their songs they were lifted from Gehinnom(then again, maybe by definition if you can sing you aren’t in Gehinnom), but even so, it’s an astounding interpretation. 

What do we learn from the peculiar image of Korach’s sons singing songs of praise on a high (and presumably not too unpleasant) level of Gehinnom? Well, first, note that Rashi says that it was enough that they had a “sense” or feeling of repentance. In the midst of a crisis, in which they had to choose between their father and the the leader of their people, they had a stirring of conscience, and that was enough to separate them from the mob. 

Second, note that having a conscience may not save you from an unpleasant fate- they did end up in Gehinnom, after all- but that you can retain that conscience, that moral spark at the core of your being, even in hell (or in a police state, or in the Gulag, or the any other totalizing and demoralizing environment). As long as you have even an inchoate feeling of moral responsibility, you are not “dead,” you have retained your humanity, and won a victory by force of spirit alone. There were Jews who practiced Judaism under pain of banishment and prison in the former Soviet Union, who refused to let an evil regime have dominion over their souls; they and countless other resisters of the mob show us what it means to sing songs even in a place that’s just a better level of Gehinnom

Korach’s sons were not immortal; “did not die” here is best understood as the death of the spirit, the death of one’s humanity. Because they refused to let the realm of violent power struggles define who they were, because they made a difficult choice to keep conscience alive, they lived as morally powerful people, even in Gehinnom. That choice will not always be as dramatic for us as it was for them, but the decision to live as a human or kill the best part of ourselves by joining the mob is a choice we face, in bigger or smaller ways, every day. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

RNJL 

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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2 Comments »

  1. Avram Kogen said

    Neal-

    Nice homily (or, perhaps I should say, Nice amplification of Rashi’s homily).

    But there is still a need to address the basic textual issue(s). For moderns, there may be a conflict between two texts (or between one specific text here, and another more general text that certainly created an impression that Korach’s sons had died when the earth did its swallowing act). For all centuries, the present Pasuk speaks to issues of theodicy and individual responsibility.

    The additional problem that Rashi was seeking to address was the superscription from several Psalms: “Shir mizmor livnei Korach”, or “Lamnatzei’ach livnei Korach mizmor”. How could the descendants of Korach have composed/performed such positive spiritual pieces (and gotten those pieces included in Tehillim, no less) if they were either dead or discredited? Seeking to have it both ways (and not especially concerned about the facts), Rashi invokes the Midrash that you quoted from Sanhedrin 110a. Rashi’s bet was that this Midrash would calm the confusion/angst of Amcha, while not being taken too seriously by those “in the know”.

    I must confess that such an explanation creates as many problems as it solves. (And propagating a literal-minded approach to stratification within Gehinom might not be the optimal approach for the 21st century.)

    Bivrakhah,

    Avram

    • rabbineal said

      Hi Avram- thank you so much for this reply. Yes, I was aware that Rashi’s problem is that the “sons of Korach” are identified as the authors of several Psalms and those were the “songs” which the midrash says they were composing in Gehinnom. I debated whether to explain that in the written form of my drasha, but I decided that for the metaphor I was making it wasn’t necessary. On the other hand, by understanding that the
      “shirot” or songs that they composed were a reference to the Psalms, maybe the midrash makes more sense and seems less like a weird rabbinic fantasy.

      In either case, I am not concerned about the readers of my drashot thinking I’m proposing a literal model of the levels of hell along the lines of a midrashic Dante. I think I make it clear that I’m taking it as a metaphor for the ability to stay true to one’s own spiritual core in the midsts of chaos or even evil, which I think is a timeless challenge even if we don’t think that Gehinnom is stacked like an Ikea bookcase. (Though Gehinnom does sound like an Ikea bookcase, no?) Well, let’s go with the thought that they got their sentence commuted for good behavior!

      Thanks again for an engaging Torah discussion- something we need more of in this world!

      yours,

      Neal

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