Korach 5777

A self-fulfilling prophecy[1]

ויקח קרח בן יצהר בן קהת בן לוי ודתן ואבירם וגו’‏
Korach the son of Yitzhar the son of Kehas the son of Levi took (something), and Dasan and Aviram, etc.[2]

This week’s parsha details the rebellion of Korach. He challenged the leadership of Moshe and Aharon, convincing a group of the greatest sages of Israel to join his cause. Moshe challenged this band of rebels to a test to determine who was the true prophet of Hashem. The result was that the sages who joined Korach died in a fire, while Korach and his entire family were swallowed up alive into the earth, to live there until the end of days. The parsha starts with the awkward phrase ויקח קרח, Korach took. The verse doesn’t specify what exactly it was though that he took. There are various explanations among the commentators[3]. Reish Lakish in the gemarra says[4] that it means that לקח מקח רע לעצמו, he acquired a bad purchase for himself[5].

It’s not so clear how the verse could be referring to a bad purchase. It makes sense to say that Korach’s plan backfired. He was intending to become the leader of the Jews, and couldn’t have predicted he’d be swallowed alive under the earth. However, usually when someone speaks about a bad purchase, they’re referring to someone who indeed got something; it just wasn’t what they intended to get. Korach seemingly didn’t get anything; he was simply punished. What does Reish Lakish mean? A possible explanation is based on what it was that motivated Korach.

Rashi explains[6] that Korach wasn’t a fool. He wouldn’t have dared to take on Moshe without knowing he would be victorious. Why was he so confident? He saw a prophecy that his future descendant would be the prophet Shmuel, who Chazal say was of equal prominence to Moshe and Aharon[7]. Korach figured there is no way he would merit this great descendant unless he took action[8]. He would have to usurp Moshe and Aharon and become the leader. However, Korach misinterpreted his prophecy. In reality, his sons did teshuvah, they repented. As a result, they were saved from the punishment that was given to Korach’s family. One of his sons eventually became the ancestor to Shmuel.

In the end, why was Korach swallowed up alive? It’s still true that one of his descendants was the great prophet Shmuel. Why didn’t this merit help him at least avoid eternal punishment? The answer is, the reason Korach merited to have Shmuel be his descendant is because Hashem doesn’t withhold reward from those who are deserving[9]. Even though Korach did a terrible sin, having the extreme gall to contest Moshe, to deny his prophecy and Torah (all of which justified his astounding punishment), nevertheless Korach’s rebellion had a tremendous positive impact. The result was that everyone’s faith and confidence in Moshe was strengthened greatly. Since he was the cause of this, he was rewarded with a descendant who one was one of the greatest prophets in history. We see a similar idea to this with Haman in his plot to annihilate the Jewish people. His deeds caused the Jews to repent more than the rebukes of any of the prophets[10]. As a result he was rewarded with descendants who learned Torah in the city of Bnei Brak[11]. In truth then, Korach’s reward only occurred because of his incredible punishment. That’s why the merit of having Shmuel as a descendant didn’t save him.

This principle can now explain what Reish Lakish meant by saying that Korach acquired for himself a bad purchase. Korach’s rebellion really did earn him an acquisition. He was rewarded with having one of the greatest prophets as his descendant. However, he didn’t account for the fact that he would be severely punished, and that very punishment is what earned him his merit. In reality it was a bad purchase for himself, as he didn’t get what he wanted.

We see from the episode of Korach a fascinating idea. To achieve prophecy is no easy feat, and one has to be an incredible individual to merit such gifts[12]. However, it’s still possible to make a great mistake in interpreting the prophecy. If used to go against the Torah, it can even be the cause of someone’s own downfall. Korach’s whole rebellion occurred only due to this prophecy, and it led to his destruction[13]. This is the same thing that happened with the spies that were sent in parshas Shelach to scope out the land of Israel[14]. Their prophecy that they’d lose their status once they entered the land caused them to sin and to try to postpone entering it. In reality, they lost their status due to their sin[15].

All these examples come to remind us that despite what we sometimes think, we don’t know everything. Even people who had visions of the future made grave mistakes in their interpretations. Their miscalculation became a self-fulfilling prophecy, with severe unintended consequences. We should try to serve Hashem בתמימות, with innocence, and not try to outsmart the Torah[16]. Good Shabbos.

[1] Based on Be’er Yosef to Numbers 16:1

[2] Numbers 16:1

[3] See for example Rashi ad. loc. who explains that it means he took himself. Meaning, he separated himself from the community in a confrontational way. Targum Onkelos ad. loc. explains the same

[4] Sanhedrin 109b

[5] The words ויקח and מקח are etymologically related because when a person purchases something they typically take it with them

[6] Numbers 16:7, citing Bamidbar Rabbah 18:8 and Midrash Tanchuma 4:5

[7] The Midrash loc. cit. deduces this from the verse in Psalms 99:6: משה ואהרן בכהניו ושמואל בקוראי שמו

[8] The phraseology between the two Midrashim differs slightly. Midrash Tanchuma has אפשר הגדולה הזו עתידה לעמוד ממני ואני אובד, is it possible that this greatness will come from me and I’ll let myself lose it? Rashi cites the version from Bamidbar Rabbah which has אפשר כל הגדולה הזאת עתידה לעמוד ממני ואני אדום, ending with “and I will be silent?”

[9] Bava Kamma 38b

[10] Megillah 14a

[11] Gittin 57b; See Kedushas Levi Inyanei Purim who explains how Haman could be rewarded for acts that he did with evil intent. See also Megillas Sesarim’s introduction to Esther where he discusses the merit Haman created through his wicked plot; it’s the basis for http://parshaponders.com/purim-5778

[12] R’ Pinchas b. Yair counts it as the second last of either ten or eleven levels of Divine service in Avodah Zarrah 20b

[13] It’s ironic that the last level in R’ Pinchas b. Ya’ir’s list is the resurrection of the dead, and there is a Tanna in Sanhedrin 108a who holds Korach’s rebellion (which was prompted by prophecy, the level before resurrection) caused him to lose his right to be revived in the World to Come (the Be’er Yosef combines the concept of the World to Come with the resurrection of the dead, although the two terms can sometimes mean different things)

[14] See Parsha Ponders to Shelach 5777 (http://parshaponders.com/2017/06/14/shelach-5777)

[15] Their prophecy also caused the entire generation in the wilderness to perish without entering the land of Israel. Again this is ironic according to the opinion in Sanhedrin (loc. cit.) that says that that generation won’t be resurrected. The Be’er Yosef brings a third example from the story of King Chizkiyahu’s sickness, see Berachos 10a

[16] See Nefesh HaChaim Sha’ar Aleph Chapter 22 where he discusses using prophecy to break the Torah