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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Korach’s Surprising Legacy

by Rabbi Aaron Finkelstein (Posted on July 4, 2024)
Topics: Korach, Sefer Bamidbar, Torah

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Growing up, Korach came up twice a year. At summer camp Korach was a biblical archvillain. Campers and staff would read this parasha and derive lessons about holiness, jealousy and power. During one memorable year, a group of counselors organized an unauthorized staff meeting in an attempt to create a more democratic leadership structure at camp. They were disciplined and explicitly compared to Korach whose attempts to wrest power from Moshe take center stage in this week’s parsha.

However, Korach also came to mind in a context which couldn’t have been more different. Every year while standing in shul on Rosh Hashanah, we would introduce the shofar by reciting Psalm 47 seven times:

לַמְנַצֵּ֬חַ ׀ לִבְנֵי־קֹ֬רַח מִזְמֽוֹר׃ כּל־הָ֭עַמִּים תִּקְעוּ־כָ֑ף הָרִ֥יעוּ לֵ֝א-לֹהִ֗ים בְּק֣וֹל רִנָּֽה׃

For the leader, of the sons of Korach, a psalm. All you peoples, clap your hands, raise a joyous shout for God.

Reading this Psalm, I always wondered, what was Korach, or his sons at least, doing at the height of Rosh Hashanah davening?!

Based on a verse in Parashat Pinchas, our rabbis and commentators wrought a more nuanced epilogue to the Korach story. A few weeks from now, we will read the second census that takes place in Sefer Bamidbar. As it recapitulates Korach’s rebellion, the Torah tells us:

וּבְנֵ֣י אֱלִיאָ֔ב נְמוּאֵ֖ל וְדָתָ֣ן וַאֲבִירָ֑ם הֽוּא־דָתָ֨ן וַאֲבִירָ֜ם (קרואי) [קְרִיאֵ֣י] הָעֵדָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִצּ֜וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֤ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹן֙ בַּעֲדַת־קֹ֔רַח בְּהַצֹּתָ֖ם עַל־ה׳׃ וַתִּפְתַּ֨ח הָאָ֜רֶץ אֶת־פִּ֗יהָ וַתִּבְלַ֥ע אֹתָ֛ם וְאֶת־קֹ֖רַח בְּמ֣וֹת הָעֵדָ֑ה בַּאֲכֹ֣ל הָאֵ֗שׁ אֵ֣ת חֲמִשִּׁ֤ים וּמָאתַ֙יִם֙ אִ֔ישׁ וַיִּהְי֖וּ לְנֵֽס׃ וּבְנֵי־קֹ֖רַח לֹא־מֵֽתוּ׃

The sons of Eliab were Nemuel, and Dathan and Abiram. These are the same Dathan and Abiram, chosen in the assembly, who agitated against Moses and Aaron as part of Korah’s band when they agitated against God.

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with Korah—when that band died, when the fire consumed the two hundred and fifty men—and they became an example. The sons of Korah, however, did not die.

Rashi (citing Sanhedrin 110a) explains:

ובני קרח לא מתו. הֵם הָיוּ בָעֵצָה תְּחִלָּה, וּבִשְׁעַת הַמַּחֲלֹקֶת הִרְהֲרוּ תְשׁוּבָה בְלִבָּם, לְפִיכָךְ נִתְבַּצֵּר לָהֶם מָקוֹם גָּבוֹהַ בַּגֵיהִנּוֹם וְיָשְׁבוּ שָׁם:

“BUT THE SONS OF KORACH DID NOT DIE” — They were in the plot originally, but at the moment when the rebellion broke out they had thoughts of repentance in their hearts; therefore a high spot was fenced round for them in Gehinnom and they stayed there.

In a similar vein, Bava Batra 74a describes the journeys of Rabbah bar bar Hana, who is shown various landmarks from biblical times. He comes across two rifts in the ground which are smoking and hears the voices of the sons of Korach. What were they saying? According to the Gemara, they were chanting and repeating the words, מֹשֶׁה וְתוֹרָתוֹ אֱמֶת—“Moshe and his Torah are true.”

These rabbinic texts suggest something both profound and unimaginable: Korach’s own sons had a change of heart. While they were initially part of the plot against Moshe and Aaron, they changed their minds and thus their lives were spared. Our rabbis’ conjuring of them is not totally complimentary to be sure. They are stuck in limbo, in “a high spot of Gehinnom”, where they sing about the truth. Still, they contemplated and even began a process of teshuva and for this they were saved.

Eleven Psalms are attributed to Korach’s sons, the most prominent of which we recite on Rosh Hashanah. These psalms speak of God’s kingship but also contain themes like forgiveness and trusting in God during times of adversity. It makes perfect sense then that we invoke Korach’s sons during the yamim noraim, a time when we ourselves are trying to change our own hearts. At the moment when we hear the sound of the shofar, we are trying to have our own moment like Korach’s sons, where an alarm bell goes off and we finally turn toward teshuva.

Beyond Rosh Hashanah, Korach’s sons teach us that the work of cheshbon hanefesh, our own spiritual accounting, is evergreen. We must seek truth continually, assess and reassess situations, and wonder, as Korach’s sons did, if perhaps, there is another way. Such exploration requires a certain spiritual courage, for it may pit us against a larger group like Korach’s assembly, elements of our upbringing, or our own long-held beliefs.  Surprisingly, Korach’s greatest legacy is not his argument with Moshe but what his children learn from the experience. Korach’s sons teach us the power of repentance and that ultimately, this kind of soul-searching work is core to our people’s survival as well.

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