How to avoid being engulfed by our environment


Why & How Korah and His Followers Were “Swept Away”


In a gripping display of power and justice, HaShem exposes the wickedness of Korah (and his company of rebels) by causing the “mouth of the earth” to violently & publicly swallow them up – alive:


“And the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. 33 So they, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit; and the earth closed upon them, and they perished from among the assembly.”(Numbers 16:32)


“And fire came forth from the LORD, and devoured the two hundred and fifty men that offered the incense.” (Numbers 16:35)


According to Talmud, there a number of different ways this event could have actually taken place.


In one teaching, (i.e.: r. Yohanan) states that Korah was not burned or swallowed up, but rather died in the plague. Another teaching states that Korah was “swallowed up” by the earth, and also burnt with fire.


Regardless of which teaching (or combination thereof) we rely upon, the lessons still remain the same. For the sake of this essay, we will rely upon and follow the teaching that Korah was physically swallowed and burned. In addition, most agree that his followers were burned and/or died in a disastrous plague.


According to the Mishnah1,2, HaShem deals with the world measure for measure (מידה כנגד מידה). In other words, the punishment is formatted or suited to fit the crime – in a justified or related way. Thus, the questions abound:


1-    This being the case; how was the punishment of the “swallowing earth” and consuming fire related to the sin itself?

2-    What exactly was the sin that triggered these events in the first place?

3-    Was there something that triggered Korah and his band to go down this path in the first place?


Korah's true motives revealed...


In order to answer these questions, we first need to fully understand the underlying problems and conditions that contributed to the rebellion in the first place. In other words, we really need to understand what motivated Korah and his followers.


According to one teaching in our Talmud, Korah set [his] site on what was not fitting for [him: IE: the Priesthood].


“Similarly do we find it with Cain, Korah, Balaam, Doeg, Ahitophel, Gehazi, Absalom, Adonijah, Uzziah and Haman, who set their eyes upon that which was not proper for them; what they sought was not granted to them and what they possessed was taken from them.” 3


From this text, we can surmise that Korah (and his wife) certainly did not appreciate what they had already received from HaShem. According to Talmud, Korah’s wife contributed to the situation, by casting an evil eye upon the Priestly leaders of Israel. As is described there, his wife fomented rebellion by underlining Korah’s lack of Terumah (ie: physical gifts granted only to Priests) & his being forced to look unimportant (ie: Levitical law required their bodies to be mostly shaved). Thus, Korah’s lack of “deserved respect” was blamed on Moses & Aaron.


Korah: The richest man on Earth


Why couldn’t Korah appreciate the special role he did have? After all, as our Talmud4 notes, Korah inherited one of Yosef’s three great treasures, accumulated during the famine in ancient Egypt. In other words, Korah was not a poor man at all (to put it mildly). If the accounts are correct, Korah was probably one of the richest men in history. He certainly wasn’t lacking anything in the material realm.


In addition to his corporeal blessings, Korah and his congregation were considered the cream of the crop (in terms of Torah learning and wisdom). Their assigned Levitical service was highly-honored by all of benai Yisrael.  Even if HaShem did trump his age-based honor (IE: if Korah was older, he also had a claim to the Priesthood), how could someone "so connected" (in time) be so disatisfied with a decision that clearly came from the very top (from HaShem Himself)? How could that not be enough for Korah and his crue?


Some commentaries answer this question by focusing in on age-based honors (that may have been rightfully due to Korah). Some say that Korah could not tolerate the actual service (rights) of the Priesthood being solely assigned to the likes of Moses and his brother Aaron. Clearly, jealousy was a part of the equation. And in the end, it was jeaolosy that consumed Korah and his followers.


But how could Korah and his followers, who were so close (in time to the Sinai miracles of HaShem), become so jealous in the first place?


Korah's True Discontent Revealed: Focusing On What He "Did Not" Have


Answer: They were certainly not focused in on the abundant blessings they had already received, so of course they wanted more!!!


After further analysis, we learn that Korah’s followers were apparently discontent with a number of things (in general). By studying the complaints and accusations they made (in verse 14), we see how their discontent had apparently built up over time - in the historical mentality of Israel. This is based on the attitude of “constantly complaining” (about the physical blessings) the children of Israel did have. It never seemed good enough. Let’s put it in perspective.


“And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab; and they said: 'We will not come up; is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but thou must needs make thyself also a prince over us? Moreover thou hast not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards; wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? we will not come up.'”(Numbers 16:12)


For the most part, these are complaints that relate to making a good standard of living, and focuses in on what they had to leave behind. Where was their milk and honey now? Where were the fields and vineyards? So while Korah's lust for power seems like the cause, it really is not how it started. On the contrary, this has to be seen in the greater context of being ungracious for what the children of Israel did have. While most people wouldn’t refer to these complaints as the CAUSE of the rebellion, they certainly do reveal a great deal about the environment and background that enabled this incident to happen in the first place. By focusing in on what they did NOT yet have (IE: the ability to fulfill agricultural laws, vineyard & a land flowing with milk and honey), they certainly displayed a lack of overall gratitude for what they already did have! In addition, Korah displayed a lack of faith – in terms of being able to trust HaShem’s ability to determine what he really needed.


Obviously, the negative character trait of ingratitude was a significant contributor towards the motivation of Korah and his followers.



So how does all of this explain the type of punishment received by Korah and his followers?


If this could all be chalked up to ingratitude, then the others mentioned for the same character flaw (Cain, Balaam, Doeg, Ahitophed, Gehazi, Absalom, Adonijah, Uzziah and Haman) would have also received similar punishments (which they did not). As Sotah says: for the sin of ingratitude, and what they possessed was taken from them.” Therefore, the sin the “opening of the earth’s mouth” could not have been exercised for their lack of gratitude, since that was addressed differently (ie: by the loss of their possessions).


How Ingratitude Contributes To the Real Sin of “Sweeping Jealousy”


Perhaps we can learn more about the nature of Korah’s ultimate sin, by focusing in on the language of their punishment (which must relate to the sin in a very specific way). According to the Humash:


 “And he spoke unto the congregation, saying: 'Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest ye be swept away in ALL their sins.” 5


Amazingly, HaShem offers the children a “Heads Up” by explicitly warning them to “touch nothing of theirs”. Apparently, HaShem didn’t even want them to see their possessions (by warning them not enter their tents). As the children of Israel were already ingratious


Once one is caught up in ingratitude (setting their eyes upon the improper), it can very easily turn into jealousy. This type of mixture makes it almost impossible to escape the clutches of its harmful effects. Like an earth that swallows up people (with a gulping “mouth”), so can the character trait of jealously (combined with ingratitude) burn like an all-consuming (i.e.: devouring) fire.


Here, we see a clear relationship between the punishment and the crime. The message to the children of Israel is very clear. Beware of the character flaw of jealousy (fueled by ingratitude), as this can fully engulf a person caught in its clutches.


But HaShem took the punishment a step further. Korah took his anger and gratitude to an extremely low level. By displaying his negative character traits in a public way, and openly fomenting a rebellion amongst all the people, a public punishment for Korah was thus required by HaShem.


Regarding Jealousy, Maimonides writes6 as follows:

“Do not think that repentance is only for sins which involve an action, sins such as adultery, theft and robbery, but just as one has to repent if one committed such sins, so also does one have to seek out one's bad characteristics and abandon [those such as] anger, hatred, jealousy, jesting, financial greed, honour, megalomania and similar characteristics - one has to return in repentance from all of these. These are the more serious sins which involve an action, for once one sinks into them it is very difficult to leave them. It is written with reference to this, "Let the wicked abandon his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts".

Once a true jealousy takes hold of a person, it starts to consume the entire essence of a person, making them a slave to their obsessive nature. Once it starts expressing itself in an open way, there is almost no way to control it. As is shown in this week’s Parsha, even the wise can be caught up in its tentacles.


The only solution is to fight this urge - by running away or fleeing from it, the instant one sees or feels the signs. However, this can only happen if one knows what signs to look for.



In Genesis 19:17, the term “swept away” is used in a similar way to this week’s  Parsha reference. When discussing how lot and his family fled Sodom, the Torah says the following:


And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad that he said: 'Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be swept away.”


טז וַיִּתְמַהְמָהּ--וַיַּחֲזִיקוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים בְּיָדוֹ וּבְיַד-אִשְׁתּוֹ וּבְיַד שְׁתֵּי בְנֹתָיו, בְּחֶמְלַת יְהוָה עָלָיו; וַיֹּצִאֻהוּ וַיַּנִּחֻהוּ, מִחוּץ לָעִיר.  יז וַיְהִי כְהוֹצִיאָם אֹתָם הַחוּצָה, וַיֹּאמֶר הִמָּלֵט עַל-נַפְשֶׁךָ--אַל-תַּבִּיט אַחֲרֶיךָ, וְאַל-תַּעֲמֹד בְּכָל-הַכִּכָּר:  הָהָרָה הִמָּלֵט, פֶּן-תִּסָּפֶה


One of the clearest lessons to be gleamed from comparatively studying this term is this: The people we hang out with can certainly cause us to be “swept away”. In the above situation, the entire society had become openly involved in sin. The only chance they had was to flee. Therefore, the concept of urgency can not be overstated. As is stated in Genesis 16:21, one must separate themselves from the congregation (of evil). Indeed, one has to escape with a sense of urgency for his/her life, “without looking back,” in order to get away from the sinful situation. The alternative in both verses is clear. One will certainly be consumed (heaven forbid) - if they tarry.


This directly applies to the character traits of ungratefulness and jealousy – especially when expressed in an unbridled, public way. The consequences are so dire, that one should certainly run away from these thoughts, whenever they enter the mind. Indeed, many a marriage, family and even friendship have broken up (been consumed), as a result of being swept away by these evil emotions.



A connection to the Earth


There is no escape from an all consuming earth, fire or plague, once it starts to consume its victims…Can there be a more frightening and final punishment than this? HaShem only knows. Either way, it is like HaShem wanted to make a very strong, public statement – for all to see.


Just as Korah opened up his mouth - in public - against Moshe’s leadership, so did the earth return the favor:


“And the earth “opened her mouth” and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods”


The condition of Korah and his followers stemmed from an earthly desire for the unnecessary. Like someone who is stimulated by physical and mundane things, Korah wanted more than he should have asked for in the spiritual realm.


According to rabbi Obadiah Sforno:


“The verse tells us that this opening was unlike the openings caused by an earthquake, which does not close immediately. In this instance, however, it closed at once, similar to one who opens his mouth to swallow something and closes it after swallowing”


Conclusion & Prayer


In our haste to be righteous and zealous in his eyes, may we not stumble in the areas of jealousy, anger and ingratitude. May we recognize warning signs, and be strong enough to initiate preventive action before it occurs. May its intoxicating effects be thrust away, so that we can be pure and specifically follow the commandments   as is preserved in Torath Moshe.


סימוכין הערות שוליים

  1. סוטה, פ"א, משנה ז'
  2. בבלי, סנהדרין צ, ע"א, ואוצר המדרשים (אייזנשטיין) עמוד תפו
  3. סוטה פ" ט
  4. סנהדרין קי:

 (R. Chama b'Rebbi Chanina): Yosef hid three treasures in Mitzrayim; Korah and Antoninus each found one, one awaits Tzadikim in the future.
(R. Levi): Three hundred mules were needed to carry the keys to Korah's treasure houses, even though they were leather (i.e. light, one mule can carry many keys).

  1. במדבר פרק טז: כו
  2. רמב"ם: הלכות תשובה ז:ג