By Marc Shoffren
One of the interesting surprises in Tehillim (The Book of Psalms) is that several of the prayersongs are ascribed to the ‘B’nei Korach’ – ‘the sons of Korach’. It seems curious that someone whose name is synonymous with insurgency gets the honour of being repeatedly named in the psalms. I struggle with this parasha, because it seems to suggest that communities shouldn’t challenge their leaders. But the rabbinical tradition can offer a different view.
In Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:27-33), we are told that the Israelites were instructed to move away from the tents of Korach, Datan and Aviram, where the rebels stood ‘with their children and their little ones’. Then, the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up ‘all Korach’s people and their possessions’. The commentators seem to struggle with the idea that innocent children are punished for the mistakes of their parents. However, in Parashat Pinchas, (Numbers 26:11), we find out that the sons of Korach didn’t die. Rashi explains that they repented before it was too late and so weren’t swallowed up by the earth. Whilst Korach and many of his followers were sent to Sheol (often understood as a murky place of after-life), his sons were saved from the fate their father suffered. Based on verses in the psalms, rabbinical commentators believed that they spontaneously voiced their respect for God and were not only spared, but given honour, establishing twelve of the 150 compositions in the Book of Psalms.
An amazing section of Bava Batra in the Babylonian Talmud relates the adventures of Rabbah bar bar Hana, a second generation Amora. In a series of fantastical tales, Rabbah bar bar Hana travels through the desert where the Israelites had wandered. During the journey, his nomadic guide shows him the place where Korach and his followers had been swallowed up. The guide points out cracks in the ground, where smoke continues to billow out as a link to gehenom (another term for a place of punishment in the after-life.) where Korach and his followers are still suffering. Rabbah bar bar Hana puts his ear to the ground and can hear voices calling out: ‘Moses is truth and his teachings are truth, but we are liars’. Yakov Meyer interprets this to mean that despite suffering the heat of hell, they were still insincere in their repentance hundreds of years later. By contrast, upon seeing Moses fall on his face to pray, Korach’s sons were struck by his sincerity, and completely repented the part they had played in their father’s insurrection.
At a time when populism is a dominant element of societies around the world, it is easy to view Korach as an example of a populist rabble-rouser, a cynical rebel who undermines the authority of others and who gains power through demolition, but has nothing inspiring or positive to offer in its place. In this vein, the biblical narrative can be seen as fostering the idea that demagogues like Korach can only be frustrated through divine intervention or through conflict. However the rabbinic tradition strikes a note of hope. The rabbinical interpretations of psalms by the sons of Korach seem to show that arrogance and cynicism can be challenged by humility and sincerity, perhaps something to cherish in challenging times.
Marc Shoffren is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue