Posted by: Subway Conductor | June 10, 2021

A Derasha for Parshat Korach

           This week’s Torah portion relates the story of the rebellion of Korach against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. As a consequence of the rebellion, Korach and his followers were punished in dramatic fashion. The Torah describes their demise. “… the ground under them burst asunder and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol with all that belonged to them. The earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.” (Numbers 17:31-33)

           On Mondays, at the conclusion of the morning service we recite psalm 48 as the psalm of the day, which begins with the words, “A song, a psalm by the sons of Korach.” Who are these sons of Korach? Before we answer this question, let us note that the Haftarah portion which accompanies the portion of Korach tells the story of Samuel annointing Saul king over Israel. Samuel was the great prophetic leader at the beginning of the monarchy. The people demanded a king be put over them despite Samuel’s opposition. Samuel acquiesced, but he chastised the Israelites for rebelling against the kingship of G-d. The connection between the Torah and Haftarah portions is the theme of rebellion against the legitimate rulership of the People of Israel. But there is another connection between the Haftarah and Torah portions. According to the Midrash, Samuel was a descendant of Korach. One of the reasons that Korach felt confident enough to challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron was that he saw prophetically that Samuel would be his progeny. G-d must therefore favor him in his argument against Moses’ leadership since he is to have such a descendant. In addition, he saw that some of his descendants would compose psalms and sing them in the Temple. Where did Korach go wrong? He failed to see that his sons would repent of his rebellion against Moses and would, for this reason, be deemed worthy of becoming the fathers of prophets and Temple singers, whereas he would perish in his rebellion. This is a very important insight which informs us of the power of teshuva – repentance.

           The descendants of Korach are not the only children of famous biblical villains who led outstanding lives. We find the following passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin: “Our Rabbis taught, … the descendants of Sisera studied Torah in Jerusalem; the descendants of Sennacherib taught Torah to the multitude: Who were these? — Shemaiah and Abtalion. The descendants of Haman studied Torah in Benai Berak.” (T.B. San. 96b) Sisera was the commander of the Canaanite army mentioned in Judges chapters 4 -5 who was defeated by Barak and Deborah and then killed by Yael. We learn that the descendants of this famous military foe of Israel converted and became students of the Torah. Sennacherib was the Assyrian king who destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel with its ten tribes. Among his descendants were the converts Shemaiah and Abtalion who were the teachers of Hillel. Even the descendants of the wicked Haman converted and became teachers of Torah. So, too, the descendants of Korach, who rebelled against the rulership of Moses and Aaron, became spiritual giants. There is a great lesson here. The lesson is that our fate is not sealed. Evil is not transmitted from one generation to the next. Even the enemies of Israel may one day become Jews and leaders of the Jewish People. This, I think, is one of the most important teachings of Judaism. Change is always possible. Just because my parents sinned does not mean that I am a sinner. Just because I have transgressed, I am not doomed to failure.  I can change.

           A personage mentioned in the Talmud is Elisha ben Abuyah who was a student of Rabbi Akiba and a colleague and friend of Rabbi Meir -two of the most important rabbinic figures of all time. Elisha lost his faith and turned away from Judaism becoming an apostate. Yet Rabbi Meir maintained a connection with him, perhaps even continuing to discuss halachic questions with his former colleague. In this case, Elisha ben Abuya did not repent. Therefore, in Talmudic tradition he is referred to as “the other one,” the rabbis not wanting to mention his name despite quoting his teachings. This also shows that our fate is not sealed. Even an outstanding teacher of Torah may turn aside from Judaism. The choice is ours to make. But Rabbi Meir continued to hope that Elisha would return before his death.

           Hope is the outstanding feature of Judaism. The Israeli national anthem is called “HaTikvah” – “the Hope.” We always have hope because as a nation we know that renewal and rebirth is possible – a return to the Land of Israel. As individuals, we also believe that we can overcome difficult challenges and grow spiritually. Even if we sometimes lose our way, there is always hope that we will find our way back. That is the meaning of teshuva – returning.Good Shabbos!!

For more of the Rabbi’s derashas, please click here for the “Rabbi’s Corner.”

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