“But Korach’s Children Did Not Die”: On the Perils of Guilt by Association: D’var Torah for Parashat Pinchas

Published Jul 2, 2021
Aryeh Bernstein speaking with his hand raised outward

Our parasha shows the Israelites pivoting toward preparations, finally, for proceeding to the Holy Land to inaugurate civic life. In the context of a census taken after two brutal acts of Divine carnage for national insurrections, the Torah matter-of-factly claims (Numbers 26:11),  “And the children of Korach did not die.  וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ.” Why didn’t they die, why might that surprise us, and why does the Torah bother to mention it? 

Let’s back up. Three weeks ago, we read of the Torah’s arch-criminal-in-our-midst, Korach, and the crushing defeat of his attempted insurrection (Bemidbar/Numbers 16-18).   Bemidbar/Numbers 16:32 narrates the punishment for Korach and his entourage: “And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all persons with Korach, and their property.” That sure makes it sound like Korach’s children were swallowed by the earth: who is more part of his household, who is more with him, than his children? Yet our parasha tells us that his children did not die.

Not only that, but the later Biblical history nonchalantly relates that Korach’s direct descendant Heiman was one of King David’s appointees to be in charge of song in the Temple (I Chronicles 6:16-23), and others of Korach’s descendants were the Temple gatekeepers and chefs (I Chronicles 9:17-32). This is a stunning turnaround: from Korach leading an insurrection against the Priesthood, to his descendants directing security and food production for that same Priesthood. It’s not just that the descendants had significant jobs supporting the Priesthood; they were entrusted with the keys to security and food service, the departments in which one can most easily murder, poison, or stage a coup.  

Moreover, apparently Heiman was not the only one of Korach’s descendants possessing musical prowess, as the Bible attributes ten of the 150 Psalms to the children of Korach (Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, and 87). The Rabbis seem to attribute meta-significance to this fact: in an elaborate midrash on Psalm 1, which is not authored by Korach’s children, the Rabbis read the whole psalm as actually telling the story of Korach’s children’s rejection of their father’s ways. By placing this narrative in the very first psalm, they may suggest that a central theme of the book of Psalms is Korach’s children’s authorship of many of its poems.

How did this happen? How did Korach commit such villainy that his whole household was swallowed alive by the earth, and yet his children and descendants became some of the tradition’s most creative, dedicated, and productive artists?

The Rabbis derive a clue from the context of our verse. After introducing Korach’s coalition partners, Dathan and Abiram, in the census, the Torah reminds us: “These are that Dathan and Abiram, the elect of the congregation, who incited against Moshe and against Aharon in the company of Korach, when they incited against YHWH. And the earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them up together with Korach, as that company died, as the fire devoured 250 people, and they became a sign. But the children of Korach did not die” (26:9-11).   Stumbling over the jagged edges of the unusual, multiple, prepositional phrases, the Rabbis break up the passage differently, as though the verse reads, “And the earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them up together with Korach, as that company died, as the fire devoured 250 people. And they became a sign, as the children of Korach did not die.” Against the more obvious reading that the death of the sinners was the sign — literally, the banner (nes/נס) — the Rabbis interpret the sign to have been the non-death of Korach’s children. This sign, this banner, was literal for the Rabbis: “When Korach and his gang were swallowed up, his children found themselves like the mast of a ship, as it says, ‘and they were a banner’. Rabbi said, every place around them was ruptured, but the very place that stood beneath them was not ruptured” (Midrash Psalms 1). Or, as the same sage said elsewhere, “A place was set apart for them in Gehinom, and they sat upon it and sang songs” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 110a-b). The ground caved, leaving caverns and new plateaus, and they caught a piece of earth jutting into the air like a flag and held on tight, sitting upon it. 

It wasn’t dumb luck that saved them, but Divine justice. In the mob of insurrectionists were a handful of righteous dissidents, who bucked their wicked father. Psalm 1 opens, “Happy is the person who does not walk in the council of the wicked”. The Rabbis explain, “This is the sons of Korach, who did not walk in the council of their father, as is said, ‘Turn away please, from the tents of these wicked men’ (Bemidbar/Numbers 16:26). When God warned people to clear out before killing Korach and his posse, apparently Korach’s children did turn away (Midrash Psalms 1). The midrash associates the verse, “Rather, in YHWH’s Torah is their delight” (Psalms 1:2) with Korach’s children and their inspired soul music. It imagines the real, human drama of the moral crisis they experienced when their father led the insurrection against the spiritually appointed leadership: “They said: We are obligated in our father’s honor; could we contest Moshe Our Teacher? They stood and aligned themselves for Moshe’s honor” (Midrash Psalms 1). It’s the Torah itself that commands us to honor our parents; what to do when our parents encourage wrongdoing, when they move to overturn Torah? Honoring our parents, Korach’s children concluded, is in service of fulfilling our profound sense of responsibility in the world. It can’t extend to where our parents undermine responsibility. 

The Sages don’t imagine them just holding on for dear life on their jutting earth-corner, but sitting there and opening in song. They received their good fortune and grace being alive when they might have expected to be otherwise, by singing. We are still singing their songs today. Noticing that one of their psalms, #45, begins, “For the leader on the lilies, of the sons of Korach, a maskil, a song for beloved ones”, the Sages connect it to another verse about lilies and lovers, “My lover went down to his garden…and to pluck lilies” (Song of Songs 6:2) and notes: “They weren’t recognizable, and everyone who would see them would say, “they’re thorns”.  Why? Because they were with thorns. And what is the way of thorns?  For fire… And the sons of Korach, who were lilies, were plucked up from between the thorns, so that they would not be consumed with the thorns. So, The Holy Blessed One jumped and saved them…” (Midrash Psalms 45). Everybody just saw a bunch of hoodlums, terrorists, gangbangers around Korach, not noticing the poets and worshippers, guardians, and artists caught up in the masses. God notices, and so must we.

The Torah emphasizes that the children of Korach didn’t die in order to highlight their courageous dissidence and to intervene against our likely attribution of guilt to them on the basis of their proximity to guilty people. I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week, in which Donald Rumsfeld died peacefully after decades of ordering the torture and murder of hundreds and thousands of people based on presumed proximity to wrongdoers, guilt by association, even if that association existed only in the racist fantasies of others. I’ve been thinking of the Chicago Gang Database, which still, somehow, exists, and which includes people merely for being acquaintances of people involved in gang activity. Meanwhile, American’s most deadly and callous family of drug dealers, the Sacklers, seem to be on the verge of receiving immunity for the carnage they have wrought. I recall the controversy and backlash PBS received from the right-wing for when Sesame Street first recorded a segment aimed at helping children cope with the incarceration of a parent. In America, we pardon or laud Korach while harshly punishing lesser criminals or those who look like our fantasies of what criminals look like, and we criminalize their children and everyone associated with them. Our parasha teaches us to reject that. When we criminalize innocent or dissident people by association, we commit a terrible sin. Torah warns us that when we do so, likely out of a fraudulent security ideology, we actually undermine our own security. It was none other than Korach’s descendants who were entrusted with the security of the Temple and its priests later on, as if to say that had Korach’s children been unjustly killed, the Temple and its priests would eventually have experienced compromised security, lacking the most qualified public servants for those roles.

Driving the point home, a stunning passage elsewhere, after telling of the brutality of our enemies in both Temple destructions, insists that “Some of the descendants of Haman learned/taught Torah in B’nei B’rak, some of the descendants of [Cana‘anite Military Commander] Sisera taught children in Jerusalem, some of the descendants of [Assyrian King] Sennacherib taught Torah to the masses” (Talmud Bavli, Gittin 57b). Who are these descendants of Sennacherib the destroyer, who exiled the northern kingdom in 722 BCE?  No less than Shemaya and Avtalyon, the teachers of the great Hillel.

Seeing only thorns and setting fire to the whole field, without paying attention to each living organism, means no Hillel, no learning for the masses, ten fewer psalms, and imperiled security for our most sacred institutions. When so-called justice systems operate with blunt instruments, when children are convicted by association, when their association was imposed by the judge and executioner, everybody loses.

Shabbat shalom.

An earlier version of this devar torah was published on Jewschool.com in 2014.

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