Korach: Buried Alive

Chasing Honor

Why did Korach’s sons eventually emerge from the ordeal?

Table for Five: Korach

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

They, and all they possessed, descended alive into the grave; the earth covered them up, and they were lost to the assembly.

Num 16:33

Bracha Goetz, The Goetz Bookshop

This week we have the chance to learn from Korach. He was an ambitious and powerful cousin of Moses and Aaron. Korach sought to challenge their leadership and attracted many followers with his charismatic ways. The problem is that Korach and his followers were not challenging Moses and Aaron for noble reasons, but because they were jealously seeking honor.

How are we like the followers of Korach who got swallowed up into the earth? We also descend while still alive when we chase after honor. Our pure essence gets covered up, and we lose connection with others. Estrangement results from repeatedly letting our destructive impulses influence our actions. When we get caught up in material pursuits and forget what brings lasting pleasure, our spirits get deadened too.

What separates us from our real, pure selves and from a sense of unity with others? Anger, the pursuit of honor, and letting our impulsive desires control us. How can we become more alive? By practicing gratitude – the essence of being Jewish. We all have aspects of Korach and his followers within us, and we can learn from them how to live more fully so that we too don’t sink down – feeling genuine gratitude for what we currently have, appreciating others’ virtues, and thankfully and nobly spreading loving kindness. These are ways to experience fulfillment.

Throughout each day we are granted multiple opportunities to choose between covering up our souls with dirt or letting them gratefully shine with vibrant life.

Rabbi David Eliezrie, President, Rabbincal Council of Orange County

In a contradiction in terms, the verse states, they descended in the earth, but they were alive. Chassidism explains this dichotomy. Living a life to the fullest is to live a life enriched with mitzvot and the study of the Torah. One can go through the motions to seek glory, impressing others so they will say, “he is such a great rabbi!” When Torah is used to achieve such goals, it loses its vitality.

Korach was scholarly, affluent, and a leader. He chose to exploit these qualities to seek grandeur and importance. Instead of dedicating them for a higher purpose he used them to advance himself. The highest aspiration of a human is to connect to G-d. When we distort the teachings of Torah for our own purposes, we may be alive, but we are not really living.

The sons of Korach did not suffer his fate. They too were swallowed up by the earth, but eventually emerged from the ordeal. Why? Despite their decadence they still had a spark of true life, a connection to Torah and G-d. That was the catalyst for their regret and repentance, prompting their salvation and return to the community.

Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy Judaics Faculty

Ten things were created on the eve of the first Sabbath at twilight (Pirkei Avot 5:6), including the mouth of the earth that swallowed Korach’s rebellion. In our parasha (Numbers 16:28-30), Moses warns, “If God brings about something unheard of, such that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them, and if they go down alive into Sheol, you will know they have spurned God.” The 13th century commentator Chizkuni emphasizes that the “unheard of” element is not the eruption of the mouth of the earth, but the descent of living people into the underworld.

We have seen this mouth of the earth before, when God admonished Cain (Genesis 4:11), “You shall be more cursed than the ground which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood.” We also heard the spies (Numbers 13:32) fearfully claim that the land “devours its inhabitants.” Kohelet reaffirmed (Ecclesiastes 3:20) that “everything comes from the dust, and to the dust returns,” but not ALIVE…

Can one simply walk into the inferno, like Dante, on a road trip to see the sights and learn the lessons? Maybe… (see Eruvin 19a for the locations of entrances!). Perhaps we should regard this living descent to hell as a reminder of the eternal opportunity for repentance. After all, Korach merited to have his descendants sing God’s praises in the holy Temple (see Psalms), and Rabbi Eliezer argued that even the assembly of Korach has a share in the World to Come (Sanhedrin 108a).

Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Executive Director, Aish LA

Why was Korach buried alive? Imagine quarreling with Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, that you should have taken the last shot, not him, with the game on the line. A thousand times more chutzpah than that is challenging the greatest prophet who ever lived. God said, “Moses was the humblest man on the face of the earth”. Rabbeinu Bechaye, a classic commentator, explains that Korach erred in seeking to rise to a lofty position for which he was unfit. The Peter Principle. We all do it. Moses didn’t see himself as any greater than the ground he walked on, but Korach acted like he was greater than Moses himself. For this arrogance Korach was literally brought low, into the bowels of the earth.

If we don’t have a leader, if the anarchists have their way, if there are no boundaries, if laws are not made and those made are not enforced, then the Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 3:2, says that people will swallow each other alive. Since Korach argued that the entire nation was holy and equal, we didn’t need a leader. And if they needed a leader, it should be Korach and not Moses. For that Korach was punished. He was swallowed by the ground to hint at the natural consequences of what we would do to one another because of his proposal. Be humble, know your place and be careful of your ulterior motives. Don’t bite off more than you can chew!

Dr. Rachel Lerner, Jewish Educator

This profound and chilling verse speaks to the fate of Korach and his followers, who rebelled against the authority of Moses and Aaron. The account teaches important lessons about the consequences of challenging divinely appointed leadership, and the fragility of human existence.

The earth covering them up symbolizes the finality and irrevocability of their fate, a reminder that the consequences of our actions have lasting implications. Their wives and children are swallowed as well, so that no future generations of the rebels survive. Moreover, the verse speaks to the concept of collective responsibility within the Jewish community. Korach’s followers were not merely individuals, but part of a larger assembly. Their rebellion affected the entire community, highlighting the interconnectedness of Jewish society. The loss of these individuals serves as a cautionary tale, demonstrating the potential harm that can arise from challenging the established order.

Was this the only way for Moses to shut down the rebellion? If God could cause the miraculous opening of the earth to swallow the people, surely there could be another, less tragic, miraculous consequence for those who revolted. They needed to be punished and yet we must also view this truly disturbing example with empathy. Yes, there are more productive ways to bring about change and challenge leadership. We don’t know what the reasoning was behind each person’s decision to join the rebellion, to act out in this way. How can we learn the lesson of reverence and also mourn the loss of human life?

With thanks to Bracha Goetz, Rabbi David Eliezrie, Nili Isenberg, Rabbi Aryeh Markman, and Dr. Rachel Lerner.

Image: “Punishment of the Rebels” (detail) by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1480

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