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Korach and the Epicenter

  • Rav Michael Hattin






Korach at the Epicenter

By Rav Michael Hattin





With the debacle of the Spies behind them, the People of Israel begin their march into the wilderness at God's behest.  They enter its desolate confines reluctantly, for they know that they will not emerge from it alive.  No doubt the people, in spite of last week's concluding message assuring their descendents a brighter future, feel distraught and despondent.  How difficult it is to continue with the struggles and challenges that life presents, when the promise of purpose and the dream of a destination is so hopelessly out of reach!


Into the despair steps Korach, a demagogic provocateur, who quickly musters the malcontents to challenge the leadership of Moshe and Aharon.  Accusing them of despotism and autocracy, Korach and his cohorts cynically contrast Moshe's earlier promises of leading them to a fertile land of fields and vineyards with their present wretched predicament.  And why has Aharon been awarded the priesthood if not because he unfairly enjoys Moshe's support? And why have the firstborn of the people been disqualified from the ministering at the Tabernacle in favor of the Levites, if not because the latter are Moshe's kin?  And why has Elizaphan son of Uzziel been appointed as chief of the Clan of Kehat, if not because Moshe prefers him to Korach, Elizaphan's elder?  For the first time since we have met him, Moshe becomes very angry, for he knows as we do that he has been a selfless and devoted leader, who has always put the interests of the people before his own.  The nominations that Moshe has made have been carried out at God's directive, and his personal preferences have played no role whatsoever in the selection process. 


The Confrontation


Finally, the rebellion comes to a head, as Korach and his large following of hundreds prepare to engineer their own election by invoking Divine approval for Moshe and Aharon's ouster.  Preparing their incense firepans at Moshe's direction, they assemble with their fragrant (and flagrant!) sacrifice to confront Aharon's own offering, confidently awaiting the sure sign of heavenly fire that will secure their promotion to leadership.  Expectantly, the congregation of Israel gathers around the combatants, who are positioned at the 'protest tent' of the ringleaders Korach, Datan and Aviram.


God's displeasure is aroused against the unfaithful bystanders, but is deflected from them by Moshe's intercession:


"…shall one man's transgression cause You to be enraged with all of the congregation?" (Bamidbar 16:22). 


Accepting Moshe's pleas, God then instructs him to warn the people to draw back from the tent of Korach, Datan and Aviram. 


"The people stepped back from their tent as Datan and Aviram emerged defiantly and stood at the tent's entrance, accompanied by their wives and children.  Moshe exclaimed: 'By this you shall know that God has sent me to do all of these deeds, for they are not of my own making.  If these people die after the manner of all others, and the decree of all flesh is visited upon them as well, then God has not sent me.  But if God 'creates a creation' ('im BRiAh yiVRAh Hashem' – Bamidbar 16:30) so that the earth opens its mouth and swallows them and all of their possessions alive, then you shall know that these men have incensed God.' 


Thus, invoking his own heavenly sign, Moshe avers that his integrity and sincerity will be proven by an unusual Divine intervention: a restrained earthquake that will devour the perpetrators and all that is theirs, but will leave the rest of the congregation unscathed.


"Just as Moshe finished to state his words, the earth beneath them opened up.  The ground 'opened its mouth,' swallowing them and their households, swallowing all of Korach's people and all of their possessions.  They thus descended to the grave alive, for the ground covered them up and they were lost from among the congregation.  All of the people of Israel who were in their proximity fled at their cries, for they were afraid of being similarly swallowed by the ground.  A fire went forth from before God and consumed the two hundred and fifty presenters of the incense" (Bamidbar 16:31-35).


The Significance of the Earthquake – Avraham Ibn Ezra


This unprecedented display of God's displeasure, short in duration but intensely destructive, is the subject of some discussion among the commentaries.  Why does Moshe invoke an earthquake of all possible signs, and why are the rabble-rousing rebels so completely consumed by its effects?


Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain), adopting a rationalistic approach, attempts to lessen the miraculous nature of the proceedings: "Some say that the term 'BRiAh' or 'creation' indicates some new phenomenon that never had taken place before.  I, however, have already explained that the root 'BaRA' can be used in the sense of 'cutting,' as the verse in Yechezkel/Ezekiel states: '…they will cut ('BaRAi') them with their swords…' (Yechezkel 23:47).  Many times in the past it has happened that earthquakes have struck various lands and swallowed up their inhabitants alive.  When used here, the verb is therefore to be understood in the sense of the earth being rent open.  As for the expression 'the earth shall open its mouth' (Bamidbar 16:30), it is an anthropomorphism (the attribution of human characteristics to objects or to God).  I have already explained that since the human soul (while in the body) inhabits the intermediate realm between heaven and earth, it often describes transcendent or terrestrial things in anthropomorphic terms, for the sake of clarity" (commentary to Bamidbar 16:30).


For Ibn Ezra, the Torah's usage of the noun 'BRiA' or the verb 'BaRAh' to describe the unexpected earthquake is not meant to imply some completely unfamiliar and bizarre occurrence.  Although this root is typically used in the context of 'creation ex nihilo' (literally 'out of nothing'), such as in the opening passage of the Torah that describes God's fashioning of the cosmos ('Bereishit BaRAh Elohim' – Bereishit 1:1), Ibn Ezra maintains that its more fundamental meaning has to do with 'cutting,' and by extension 'demarcating' or 'setting limits.'  Thus, according to his explanation, Ibn Ezra alternatively reads the above passage from Bereishit 1:1 as 'In the beginning of God's delineation of heaven and earth…,' for it speaks of God's delimitation of the primeval matter to produce elemental structure and form.


To return to our context, Ibn Ezra makes no attempt to explain the significance of just this particular sign that Moshe invokes, but rather seeks to downplay the seeming exceptionality of the episode by calling attention to other earthquakes that have struck human settlements with equal or greater repercussions.  The curious opening of the earth's 'mouth' is a straightforward example of the Torah adopting an idiomatic expression to make the text more comprehensible, and contains for him no unusual meaning.


The Significance of the Earthquake – Ramban


For the Ramban, the earthquake that is visited upon Korach and his men is both exceptional as well as particularly punitive, and indicates an unusually heinous infraction on their part. 


"Many times before, elements among the people had complained to Moshe and expressed regret with having left Egypt, but the punishment of these fellows was more harsh because they had accused Moshe of exercising undeserved authority over the people.  They had exclaimed: 'Is it not enough that you have taken us out of a land flowing with milk and honey in order to kill us in the wilderness, but must you also rule over us with disdain?!' (Bamidbar 16:13).  They were thus guilty of two evil deeds, for not only did they shame Moshe their master, but they also denied all of God's acts on their behalf in Egypt and in the wilderness, even calling into question the Revelation at Sinai.  Had not God assured Moshe that in the aftermath of that event the people would believe in the integrity of his mission forever?  Korach and his followers, however, proclaimed that Moshe was unfit to lead the people, was overbearing, and brought them only misfortune.  Moshe's anger is thus understandable…" (commentary to Bamidbar 16:29).


In other words, by accusing Moshe of selfish tyranny, of acting in his own interests and of corrupt and dishonest rule, Korach and his supporters effectively exclude God from the events of the Exodus and the wilderness.  When Moshe exclaims that: 'if these people die after the manner of all others, and the decree of all flesh is visited upon them as well, then GOD HAS NOT SENT ME,' he refers not only to his most recent acts of initiating the election of the Levites and the promotion of his brother Aharon to the priesthood, but to all of the deeds that he has undertaken since the time that God 'sent' him to Pharaoh as His emissary.  If indeed Moshe has been acting independently to crowd the corridors of power with his own family and adherents, then God has been absent from the proceedings.  The attack on Moshe is thus a much more serious broadside against the fundamental axiom of Divine involvement in the unfolding history of the people of Israel.


A Punishment to Fit the Crime


Ramban expands on this theme by considering the unusual penalty meted out against the rebels:


"Actually, the root 'BaRA' does indicate the creation of something out of nothing, for the Hebrew language has no other word to describe such an event.  It is true that the phenomenon of an earthquake is certainly nothing new, but that the ground should open itself up to swallow its victims is unprecedented.  Under typical circumstances, when an earthquake occurs, the fracture in the ground remains exposed and sometimes pools with water.  But that the ground should open up and then close at once, like a person who opens his mouth to swallow something and then shuts it immediately, was an event that on that day occurred for the first time and thus resembled an act of creation ex nihilo.  This is the meaning of the expression that 'the ground covered them up and they were lost from among the congregation'…for in a moment the earth opened its mouth and then closed it upon them, as if they had never existed" (commentary to 16:30,33). 


Thus, unlike the Ibn Ezra who detects nothing particularly unusual about the demise of Korach and his men, Ramban sees it as a glaring and unparalleled expression of Divine displeasure. 




Although their death is seen to occur immediately after Moshe's unwitting pronouncement of sentencing, and thus signifies God's instant support of his cause, the Ramban leaves us to speculate concerning the exact significance of the 'earth's mouth' motif.  It may be notable that the only other occurrence of this expression is in the context of Hevel's untimely death at the murderous hands of his brother Kayin.  It will be recalled that Kayin slays his brother (Bereishit 4:8-10) and then attempts to evade responsibility:


"God said to Kayin 'Where is your brother Hevel?'  Kayin answered 'I do not know.  Am I my brother's keeper?'  God said to him: 'What have you done?  The blood of your brother cries out to me from the earth!  Now you shall be cursed from the earth that OPENED ITS MOUTH to take your brother's blood from your hand'" (Bereishit 4:10-11).


In the case of Hevel, whose name means 'breath' and whose life dissipated and expired leaving no lasting legacy, the image of the earth's maw swallowing his blood seems particularly apt.  Prevented from realizing his life's potential by a sudden and violent act, Hevel dies and leaves not a trace of his existence.  No offspring perpetuate his name, no lasting deeds immortalize his memory, and he tragically disappears from the world like a spent vaporous breath.  His blood, his life force and vital essence, perish and are absorbed into the soft, red earth.


In a similar way, Korach and his followers, who fan the flames of strife for the sake of personal gain, leave behind no significant accomplishments for all of their misguided efforts.  They disappear and it is as if they never existed, for their claims of representing the people's grievance, a smokescreen from the start, vanish with their demise.  For all of his sound and fury, Korach leaves us no mark or impression of his 'life's work.'  Strewing discord, destroying rather than attempting to build, his legacy consists of a parasha that bears his name in infamy and nothing more.  The earth has swallowed the rest, and with good reason.  The sower of strife never attains the eternity that he craves.  In the people's memory only the sincerely selfless leader who puts the interests of the people above his own, lives on forever.


Shabbat Shalom