A careful reading of parashat Korach reveals a puzzling question-what happened to Korach? It's a loose end.
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, 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 Gd. 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 Gd'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. 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 Gd'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 Gd' law, and branding Korach and his followers are liars.
As to Korach, one rabbi suggests that he was both swallowed up with the others, and consumed in the fire with the 250, as his sins were so onerous.
Yet another suggests that Korach was neither swallowed up nor consumed, but offers no further explanation. A later elaboration suggests that Korach (and Pharaoh, too) were not offered the chance to repent, as their guilt was so onerous.
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, Gd's favorite, and the only prophet of his kind.
But 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 Gd 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 Gd harden Pharaoh's heart - so is Pharaoh entirely responsible? But I digress.)
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 answers. It's driving me crazy. And 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 Gd, Korach, and the person who commits a similarly heinous act can truly know the end results of such a choice.
Increasingly, 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.
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.
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 the question "what happened to Korach?" teaches us: relax. Hang loose.
©2000 by Adrian A. Durlester
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