The Torah’s account of Korah’s uprising against Moshe and Aharon, which we read this month, is startling on several levels, most notably in terms of the gall required on the part of Korah and his cohorts to launch such an attack. It takes a special kind of cynic, and a special kind of fiend, to come up with the accusations which Korah and his followers voiced. Just several chapters before this story, we read the Torah’s description of Moshe as “exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3). And yet Korah came along and accused Moshe – and Aharon – of asserting their authority over Am Yisrael for their own prestige and aggrandizement. This despite the fact that way back at the burning bush, when Gd first appeared to Moshe and appointed him leader over the people, Moshe tried everything he could to refuse. He never asked for this job, he never wanted this job, yet Korah accused him of egotism and greed.
What’s even more surprising than the accusations themselves is the large base of support that Korah attracted. The Midrash describes in great detail how Korah spend the night campaigning, going around to the people and convincing them that they were being taken advantage of by Moshe and Aharon. Astonishingly, after all that Moshe had done for them, the people bought Korah’s nonsense and lent him their support. That is, until the catastrophic end of this unfortunate story. In one of the most dramatic events in the Humash, the ground miraculously opened beneath the tents of Korah and his main supporters, devouring them and their families, and a fire erupted that consumed the 250 men who offered incense in an attempt to usurp Aharon’s position of kohen gadol.
Korah’s Ancient Roots
Rabbenu Bahya, one of the great Sephardic commentators, uncovers for us some of the deeper layers underlying this tragic and mysterious story. He writes that the unusual features of this event leave us no choice but to resort to Kabbalah – our mystical tradition – in our effort to begin to understand it.
Rabbenu Bahya observes that the Torah (16:2) refers to Korah’s followers with the term “ansheh shem” (literally, “people of renown”). This description, Rabbenu Bahya explains, hearkens back to a tragedy that occurred many centuries earlier – the Tower of Babel. The builders of the city and tower embarked on this project with the intention of “na’aseh lanu shem” – to make for themselves a name, to earn honor and prestige (Beresheet 11:4). Thus, the description of Korah’s followers as “ansheh shem” indicates that these were the people who built the tower. Another reference to the generation of the tower, Rabbenu Bahya writes, can be found in Targum Onkelos– an Aramaic translation of the Humash from the period of the Mishnah – which speaks of Korah’s revolt against Moshe with the expression, “Ve’itpelag Korah” (literally, “Korah made a split”). The word “ve’itpelag” alludes to the generation of the Tower of Babel, which is known as “dor hapalagah – the generation of the dispersion.” Rabbenu Bahya further notes that the Torah tells of Korah and his men arising “lifneh Moshe – before Moshe,” indicating that they actually began their nefarious campaign before the time of Moshe – already in the generation of the tower.
Thus, on a mystical level, these people who arose to wage war with Moshe were the same people who arose to wage war on Gd by building the tower. They were the reincarnated souls of that generation, and rather than rectifying their rebelliousness, they continued rebelling, this time against the authority of Moshe Rabbenu.
In truth, Rabbenu Bahya teaches, this is not the first time the souls of the builders of Babel returned and perpetrated further acts of sin. They were in the world also in the time of Avraham, residing in the corrupt city of Sedom. As we read in the Book of Beresheet (19), Gd sent two angels to Sedom to rescue Lot, Avraham’s nephew, in advance of the city’s destruction. The two angels appeared as men, and Lot invited them into his home, whereupon the evil townspeople – who vehemently opposed hospitality and offering assistance to the poor – surrounded the house, seeking to kill the two guests. The Torah refers to the Sedomites as “ansheh ha’ir – the people of the city,” and Rabbenu Bahya comments that this alludes to the city of Babel. The wicked people of Sedom were the wicked people of the tower of Babel. The people in Sedom were blinded so they could not find the entrance to Lot’s home – paralleling the mixing of languages at the time of the tower, which prevented the people from working together to complete the project.
Rabbenu Bahya advances this fascinating theory – connecting between the Tower of Babel, the sinful city of Sedom, and Korah’s revolt – in order to explain why Moshe did not pray on behalf of Korah and his cohorts. Anytime Beneh Yisrael betrayed Gd, even by creating and worshipping a golden calf, committing the most grievous of all sins, Moshe interceded on the people’s behalf. On several occasions Gd decreed annihilation upon the people due to their misdeeds, and each time, Moshe prayed for them. He was the people’s loyal shepherd, who cared for them unconditionally. No matter what they did wrong, he rose to their defense, pleading with Gd to forgive them and to continue lovingly caring for them. Yet, when confronted by Korah and his fellow rebels, Moshe offered no defense. To the contrary, he instructed Korah’s followers to offer incense together with Aharon to determine whom Gd had chosen as kohen gadol, and he then turned to Gd and specifically asked that their offering be rejected (16:15). In a most un-Moshe like manner, he expressed his desire that these people be rejected and punished by Gd – as opposed to all other times, when Moshe beseeched Gd to extend undeserved kindness and forgiveness to the people, no matter how gravely they betrayed Him.
The explanation, Rabbenu Bahya explains, is that this was already this group’s third instance of sin. They were already given two opportunities to rectify their sinful past, but they instead continued sinning. Moshe therefore despaired, and no longer prayed on their behalf.
If we would stop here, we would end up with a most distressing and discouraging story. The message we would walk away with is that after just two missed opportunities of repentance, a sinner is “doomed,” Heaven forbid, that he no longer has any hope.
However, there is another, critically important aspect of this story that leads to a much different conclusion.
Rising From the Underworld
If, indeed, the people of Sedom in Avraham’s time were the souls who later rebelled against Moshe, then we should expect to find another parallel, or point of similarity, between the story of Sedom and the story of Korah.
Indeed, as noted by Rav Moshe Wolfson, the story of Sedom told in the Book of Beresheet includes an incident of people falling underground – reminiscent of the punishment brought upon Korah and his leading supporters.
The Torah in Beresheet tells of a war waged by Sedom together with its surrounding cities against four empires. The four large empires defeated Sedom, and the Torah tells that the kings of Sedom and its neighboring city – Amora – fell in a place called Emek Ha’sidim (Beresheet 14:10). Rashi explains, based on the Midrash, that this was an area of marshlands, and the mud was like quicksand, capable of pulling people into the ground, killing them. Foreshadowing the fate that would be suffered by Korah and his fellow rebels, the kings of Sedom and Amora fell beneath the ground in these marshlands.
However, this is not the end of the story, by any means. Because unlike Korah and his cohorts, the king of Sedom arose from the underworld.
We know that later, the king of Sedom came to greet Avraham, who led an attack against the four armies and rescued the people and property of Sedom. Apparently, he survived the “quicksand” of Emek Ha’sidim. Rashi – again, citing the Midrash – explains that Gd made a miracle to rescue the king of Sedom from underground. This miracle was performed, Rashi adds, in order to confirm, so-to-speak, an earlier miracle – Avraham’s emergence from the fire into which he was thrown for his rejection of idolatry. There was some skeptics who doubted whether such a miracle actually occurred, and so Gd performed another miracle – this time for the king of Sedom – to make it clear that miracles happen. The Ramban explains this Midrash to mean that Avraham passed by the marshes of Emek Ha’sidim and prayed for the king of Sedom. As part of his effort to rescue Sedom from the empires that had conquered them, he offered a prayer that Gd should miraculously raise the king of Sedom from underground.
Rav Wolfson offers a fascinating explanation for why Avraham would offer such a prayer. Realizing that the people of Sedom would return in a later generation, as the participants in Korah’s uprising, and that the king of Sedom’s demise foreshadowed the devouring of the rebels by the ground, Avraham wanted to set a vitally important precedent of miraculous deliverance from the underworld. He wanted the door to remain open for the rebels even after they fell underground, that the opportunity for repentance and forgiveness would be present even at the last moments just before their deaths. This was Avraham’s prayer – that his sinful descendants would be given a chance to redeem themselves no matter how low they fell – even after they would be devoured by the ground.
Indeed, our Sages teach us that there were several major players in Korah’s revolt who repented and survived – namely, Korah’s sons. They took part in their father’s uprising – until the very last moment, as they began falling into the underworld. Gd made them a special landing in the underworld where they were able to stay while the others fell below. There they sang praise to Gd for rescuing them, and they were ultimately brought above the ground. Their descendants included the prophet Shemuel, one of the greatest religious leaders in the history of the Jewish People. Their rescue was the fulfillment of Avraham’s prayer as the king of Sedom fell into the quicksand of Emek Ha’sidim – that the wicked people who challenged Moshe Rabbenu should be given a chance to rise from the underworld.
Although Moshe had indeed despaired from these sinners, this does not mean that the door to repentance was shut. Their righteous ancestor, Avraham Avinu, ensured that an “elevator” would be put in place to allow even these evildoers the opportunity to arise from the underworld through the process of teshuvah (repentance), and Korah’s sons indeed seized the opportunity and saved themselves.
Running to the Sound
With this in mind, we can explain an otherwise perplexing word used by the Torah in telling us this story.
The Torah (16:34) relates that as the rebels fell beneath the ground, the entire nation fled, fearing that they might also be devoured, and they ran “lekolam,” which seems to mean that they fled “to their voice” – the voice of those who fell underground. In other words, the people actually ran towards the shrieks of terror sounded by the rebels. Clearly, however, this is very difficult to understand. If the people feared that the ground would devour them, then they should obviously have run away from the sound of those being devoured, not towards them! (To avoid this question, Rashi translates “nasu lekolam” to mean that the people ran upon hearing the sound of those falling underground, not that they fled towards them.)
The explanation might be that the Torah refers here not to the sound of the sinners who fell underground, but rather to the sound of Korah’s sons. After this tragic incident, the people decided to run towards the sound of Korah’s sons – towards the sound of teshuvah, the call to each and every sinner, no matter how low he has fallen, inviting him back. Even at the very last moment, when it seems that all hope is lost, there is a way back. This message was the beautiful “sound” produced by Korah’s sons as they sang to the Almighty from their special place of refuge beneath the earth. The Torah tells us that in the aftermath of this calamity, the people heeded this call, and understood that Gd invites them back even if they have fallen to the lowest depths.
This beautifully explains a number of customs that we observe on Rosh Hashanah, on the day when we stand in trial before Gd, when we can easily feel discouraged and disheartened. The haftarah – the portion from the Prophets – on the first day of Rosh Hashanah is the story of the birth of the prophet Shemuel, who, as mentioned, was a descendant of Korah. We are reminded that Shemuel’s roots are in the underworld. He existed only because his ancestor refused to despair even as he was falling beneath the ground; because his ancestor, after repeatedly committing the most grievous sins – beginning with the Tower of Babel – still believed in the power of repentance. Indeed, the story of Shemuel’s birth concludes with the beautiful song of praise sang by his mother, Hannah, after his birth, in which she praises Gd for “morid sheol vaya’al” – bringing people back from the underworld. This is a reference to her husband’s ancestor, and to all of Korah’s sons, who were saved through the power of repentance even after they had begun falling underground. The birth of Shemuel shows us that it is never too late to rise from the “underworld,” to sincerely repent and rebuild our connection to Gd – which is precisely the message we so vitally need to hear and internalize as we stand in judgment before Gd.
For the same reason, we introduce the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah with the recitation of the 47th chapter of Tehillim, which was written by the sons of Korah. The sound of the shofar, like the sound of Korah’s sons’ song from the underworld, is the sound of repentance, the sound that summons us back no matter how far we’ve drifted. Appropriately, we introduce this sound with a reminder of the sound of Korah’s sons, which should motivate, encourage and inspire us to work towards change regardless of the mistakes we’ve made, and regardless of how many times we have attempted to change and failed.
We are, of course, still several months away from Elul and Rosh Hashanah. But the “sound of repentance” calls to us at all times. And the source of this “sound” is not the Western Wall in Jerusalem, not any yeshiva or synagogue, not the grave of any famous rabbi, and not the home of any mystic. It originates from underground somewhere in the middle of the desert, reminding us that teshuvah is possible even in the depths, even after years of wrongdoing. We can start the process right here and right now, wherever we are. Teshuvah is relevant to all of us at all times. If we listen, we can hear the sound anytime, even right at this moment. Let us pay attention, hear that beautiful sound, and answer the call by making real changes in our lives, starting today.