It’s a head-scratcher all right. Though it has troubled me for a long time, thirteen years ago is when I first mused about it. My being troubled is in good company. It troubled the rabbis, too. We are no closer to solving the mystery than we were before – and perhaps we never will solve it. Maybe, as I speculated 14 years ago, that’s exactly the point.
The loose end, the question, is “what happened to Korach?” or “how/when did Korach die?” While it may seem an irrelevant point, can we truly say that anything in Torah is irrelevant? (Actually, truth be told, as sacred as I hold the Torah, I am actually comfortable with the notion of declaring some of what is to be found in Torah irrelevant, insignificant, and generally without meaning for contemporary life. Nevertheless, I will continue to mine, explore, write about, discuss, investigate, and argue about all of the Torah, including those parts I find lacking. Cherry-picking from religious text is responsible for so much of the negative impact that religion has admittedly had upon society. I’m not Gladwell, or Hitchens, or even DeGrasse-Tyson – a fellow alumni of Bronx Science, and just a few years behind me – perceiving religion as the bane of society and responsible for many, if not most, of its ills. However, I feel that I must acknowledge that religion has been abused and has been (and continues to be) responsible for problems and issues that plague our society. Boy, this is one long parenthetical aside, isn’t it. As Tom Lehrer said,”but I digress…”)
The rabbis, of course, have never considered anything in Torah as irrelevant. Not one jot or tittle is to be overlooked. Nevertheless, the rabbis found their fair share of head-scratchers. We say or ask “what’s troubling Rashi?” with a sometimes bemused air – but the fact is, there were lots of things that did trouble Rashi, and which he attempted to explain or reconcile. I, personally, find myself more troubled by the places that trouble me that didn’t prompt Rashi to be troubled! That’s a musing for another time. Perhaps even a whole whole book: “What’s Troubling Adrian That Didn’t Trouble Rashi?” or perhaps less egotistic, simply “What Didn’t But Perhaps Should Have Troubled Rashi?” I’ve added the thought to my Evernote “writing ideas” folder. Which is already quite large. Sigh.
We know what happened to Korach’s people (i.e. his family) and to his fellow agitators Dathan and Abiram and their people – the earth opened and swallowed them up. But the text does not say that Korach himself was swallowed up? Where was Korach when this happened?
Later in the parasha, we read that the 250 leaders of Israel who were following Korach and who had brought their fire-pan incense offerings to the Tent of Meeting-they got the Nadav and Avihu treatment and were consumed by fire from G”d. But at the beginning of the parasha we read that these 250 were in addition to Korach, Dathan, Abiram and On. So if only those 250 were consumed by G”d’s fire, and Dathan, Abiram and company were swallowed up by the earth, what happened to Korach? It’s a mystery. A loose end.
I don’t know about you, but loose ends drive me crazy. So I searched through the text, turned to Talmud, Midrash and other sources to see what happened to Korach.
The rabbis were certainly willing to provide some answers. Burt as usual, there wasn’t total agreement between them.
The rabbis present us with four basic theories about what happened to Korach:
1.) He died along with the 250 other who offered profane incense
2.) He was swallowed up by the earth at the time this happened to all his household and followers.
3.) Some say his sin was so great he died from both of the above.
4.)As a result of some other plague that befell the Israelites (and see some of the elaborations
The first is a stretch under any circumstances. The second is simply not made clear by the text of the Torah. The third seems a rabbinical fantasy or the result of too much consumption of alcoholic beverages.
A later elaboration of the third explanation suggests that Korach (and Pharaoh, too) were not offered any chance to repent, as their guilt was so onerous.
In some midrashic and Talmudic sources, we learn that some rabbis believe that Korach’s people recognized their sin, repented of their ways, and were placed on a high place in Gehinnom from where they shouted G”d’s praise. Yet another rabbi claims to have been shown the spot where Korach’s band was swallowed up, and to have heard voices declaring the truth of Moshe and G”d’s law, and branding Korach and his followers are liars.
Yet what was so onerous about what Korach did? What makes his transgression so different? As Pharaoh is the other figure cited here, one might conclude that the issue is because they took on Moshe, G”d’s favorite, and the only prophet of his kind.
Something is out of kilter here. Our Torah teaches us that Moshe was buried in an unknown grave, precisely so that he would not become an object of undue adulation and worship. And G”d forgives Israel for far worse transgressions than those of Korach. No, it seems Korach was singled out because he took on the teacher’s pet. Is that fair? (And, in the case of Pharaoh, did not G”d harden Pharaoh’s heart – so is Pharaoh entirely responsible? But again, I digress.)
We know what’s really motivating the rabbis. They have successfully usurped G”d’s (and the people’s) authority and taken it upon themselves to be the decisive interpreters of text and tradition. They saw themselves as the descendants of, and substitutes for, Moshe. So they trot out the story of Korach as an illustration of what might befall those who challenge their authority in the way Korach challenged Moshe’s authority.
The fourth option just represents the people who didn’t buy the first three. Some of them stretch credulity to the limit.
One option the rabbis do not present is that Korach did not die. Though there is one rabbinic variation which suggests that Korach was neither swallowed up nor consumed, but offers no further explanation.
So, are Korach (and Pharaoh) doomed to be Flying Dutchmen, poltergeists, forever wandering in limbo? Just doesn’t seem fair.
Fair or not, it remains a loose end. What happened to Korach? I’ve not yet found a satisfactory answer. It’s driving me crazy. I don’t think I’m atypical. I suspect most people don’t like loose ends.
Then it hits me. Maybe that is precisely Torah’s point. That life isn’t always neat and tidy, that sometimes there are loose ends, things we may never know or understand or figure out. It’s a reminder that not everything in life can be brought neatly to closure. Yes, we can imagine what happened to Korach, and speculate on it. But only G”d, Korach, and the person who commits a similarly heinous act can truly know the end results of such a choice.
Some in our society find capital punishment a deterrent to crime. We suspect that if people know they may have to pay with their life for a crime, they might think twice before committing that crime. Whether that really works or not, I can’t say, though the evidence seems to support a different conclusion.
However, I can say that I submit the proposal that perhaps, for humans, not knowing our fate or the final consequence of our actions might be a far more effective punishment. It drives us crazy, not knowing. Gee, if I commit this crime, I have no idea what will happen to me, though I am sure something will and it will probably be bad in the end. That, to many, is more scary than knowing the penalty up front. Think about it.
On the one hand, a vague sign like “Violators will be prosecuted” seem unlikely to be effective. It does not appear to effectively deter a criminal. Imagine now a sign that said “Violators will be punished by spinning a wheel to determine the punishment, which ranges from $10 to execution.” That might give some folks pause. (Of course, the way our legal system works – or perhaps doesn’t work – these days, for some, especially the poor and minorities, justice may very well be a crap shoot.)
It’s an absurd example, I know. Interjecting that kind of mystery into the justice system is quite contradictory to the teachings of Torah. I use it merely as a thought-provoker. Not knowing may be a far worse fate for those of us raised to believe, with human hubris, that we can find an answer to every question.
We don’t know what happened to Korach, and the Torah doesn’t tell us. And we’ll never know unless we ourselves commit acts as onerous as Korach’s. Seems to me that frustrating enough a mystery to keep most of us from ever attempting anything like Korach did.
Loose ends are a powerful messenger. Ignorance, it seems, may not be bliss, but the highest torture.
So what do we do? We must accept not knowing. Our own Holy Torah herself says to us that we can’t expect the answer to every question we ask of her. And that is stated no more strongly than it is here in parashat Korach. So we must come to terms with not having all the answers. We must give up our human hubris, our fatal belief that our own intelligence will provide us the answers to all mysteries, even the greatest of them all. We must learn to appreciate the loose ends, to savor them.
This Shabbat, and always, enjoy and appreciate the loose ends of life, the unanswered questions. We need not drive ourselves crazy, or give ourselves ulcers seeking answers in vain to unanswerable questions. We must learn to let go. Worry too much about tying up loose ends, and you might wind up torturing yourself needlessly. Learn the lesson of what the question “what happened to Korach?” teaches us: Relax. Hang loose. Chill. Chillax. Let it go. (Oh, great, now I have that song from Frozen stuck in my head.)
©2014. Portions ©2000 and 2001 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Korakh 5773 – B’tzelem Anashim (Redux 5764)
Korakh 5772 – B’nei Miri
Korakh 5771 – Supporting Our Priests and Levites
Korakh 5770 (Redux 5758/62) Camp Rebellion
Korakh 5769 – And who Put G”d In Charge (or 2009: A Space Odyssey)
Korakh 5768-If Korakh Had Guns
Korach 5767-Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad, Tabernacle?
Korach 5766 – Investment
Korah 5765 – Stones and Pitchers and Glass Houses
Korach 5764-B’tzelem Anashim
Korach 5761-Loose Ends