We read the account in this week's Torah portion of one of the most amazing miracles of the Torah - how Korach and his cohorts are swallowed up by the earth because of their rebellion against Moses, which implicitly was a rebellion against G-d Himself. Each of us conjures up images of this awesome scene as we try to understand the unique meaning of each phrase in the narrative.
"When he [Moses] finished speaking all these words, the ground that was under them split open. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all the people who were with Korach, and the entire wealth. They and all that was theirs descended alive to the abyss; the earth covered them over and they were lost from amidst the congregation" (Numbers 16:31-33).
We read the account in this week's Torah portion of one of the most amazing miracles of the Torah - how Korach and his cohorts are swallowed up by the earth because of their rebellion against Moses, which implicitly was a rebellion against G-d Himself. Each of us conjures up images of this awesome scene as we try to understand the unique meaning of each phrase in the narrative. There is, however, a sister text describing this event in which Moses recounts that "the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, and their households, and their tents, and all the property that was with them, in the midst of all Israel" (Deuteronomy 11:6).
The seemingly superfluous phrase, "in the midst of all Israel," is the basis of an interesting dispute between two great Talmudic sages. Quoting the Midrash, Rashi explains as follows: Rabbi Yehudah said that wherever one of the sinners would flee, the earth would split beneath him and swallow him. Rabbi Nechemiah argued that the verse states "the earth opened its mouth" (Numbers 16:32), implying only one mouth and not many mouths. Rabbi Yehudah replied that if so, we are left without an explanation for the verse, "in the midst of all of Israel." As such, Rabbi Nechemiah taught that the earth became like a funnel so that wherever the sinners were, they would roll down to the place where the earth split, necessitating only "one mouth".
We thus have a dispute regarding the exact manner in which the miracle occurred, based upon the premise that the rebels were swallowed up "in the midst of all Israel." We can't help but wonder, what is the purpose of all this drama? Why did Hashem feel that this miracle must occur "in the midst of all Israel"?
If one analyzes the nature of Korach's rebellion, the answer seems to become obvious. When Korach first arises, he accuses Moses: "You have taken too much, for the entire congregation - all of them - are holy and Hashem is among them; why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of Hashem?" (ibid. 16:3). Korach speaks on behalf of the people. According to the Midrash, Korach went to each of the tribes and lobbied for his cause, stating that "I am upset for your sakes!" Datan and Aviram follow this theme, accusing Moses of causing the deaths in the desert. They too claim to have the people's interest in mind. Perhaps this is why there are over 20 references to "congregation" in the Torah's description of this whole event.
The first phrase of this week's Torah portion states that Korach, Datan, and Aviram "took," but it does not make clear what they took. Rashi interprets that they "took themselves to one side," separating from the congregation. Ironically, the generating incident of their efforts to "defend" the congregation was to separate from it. The Torah reveals to us that as sincere as they appeared, these rebels were concerned about their own welfare, not the people's. In order to challenge Moses, the leader of the people and the one upon whom everybody relied, the rebels first had to remove themselves from the people and their concerns.
This could be the reason why they had to be swallowed up while being "in the midst of all Israel." This highlighted the nature of their sin and their hypocrisy. They had done everything that they could to appear to be "in the midst of all Israel," when in fact they were not part of Israel at all.
It is fascinating to see that Moses himself was the antithesis of Korach in this respect. When the Jewish people are enslaved in Egypt, the Torah testifies that Moses, as a prince in Pharaoh's palace, "saw their suffering" and went out to join them (Exodus 2:11). When the Jewish people are on the verge of destruction after the sin of the golden calf, Moses passionately pleas on our behalf, asking G-d that if He will not forgive the people, "erase me now from the book [the Torah] that You have written" (ibid. 32:32). When two prophets are discovered to be prophesying that Moses would die and not lead the Jewish people into the land of Israel, Moses exclaims, "Would that the entire people of Hashem could be prophets!" (Numbers 11:29). Even when Moses did rebuke the Jewish people, it was clearly in order to help us improve, as a father rebukes his child. Let us all learn this deep rooted concern for others from Moses, our greatest teacher.
Cohen, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is an educator at the Columbus
Torah Academy in Ohio.