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Korach’s Unique Punishment

Korach (Numbers 16-18 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Bamidbar, 16:30-32: “But if Hashem will create a creation, and the ground will open its mouth and swallow them and all that is theirs, and they will descend alive to the pit – then you shall know that these men have provoked HaShem. And it was when he finished saying all these words, the ground underneath them opened up. And the land opened its mouth and swallowed them and their homes, and every man who was with Korach and all their possessions. And they and everything of theirs went to the pits alove, and the ground covered them and they were lost from the congregation.”
Rashi, Bamidbar, 16:30. Dh: Yivrah: “To kill them in a way that no man has died up till now…”

This week’s Torah Portion involves the terrible story of the uprising of Korach against Moshe. Initially, Moshe tries to make peace, despite the fact that he had done nothing wrong and that Korach had instigated the dispute. However, when Korach continues to insist that Moshe was not a valid leader, and that he had made up sections of the Torah, Moshe drastically changes his tone, and requests that Godbring about the destruction of Korach and his cohort in a unique way to clearly demonstrate to everyone the severity of Korach’s actions. Rashi, on the words, “If Hashem will create a creation,” writes: “To put them to death through a death which no person has died up to this point - the earth will open its mouth and swallow them. Then you shall know that they provoked Hashem and I have spoken the Word of the Almighty.”

It is understandable why Moshe wanted Korach to die a unique death, because Korach’s arguments and provocations threatened to undermine the whole basis of Emunah – that the Torah is a Divine document given by HaShem and transmitted by Moshe Rabbeinu. Korach claimed that some of the Mitzvot in the Torah1 did not make sense, and used this to try to prove that Moshe had made them up. In addition, he attempted to undermine the whole system of leadership, claiming, “all the nation is holy, why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of Hashem.”2

Yet, the exact nature of the death that Moshe requested needs explanation – why did he ask God to cause Korach and his congregation to die through being swallowed into the ground? The Kli Yakar offers an interesting approach – he focuses on Moshe’s request that Korach and his cohorts be swallowed up and he cites a source in Chazal where the same concept of swallowing is mentioned. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) teaches that one should pray for the well-being of the Government of a country, because, “if not for the fear [of the Government], each man would swallow his fellow alive.”3 The Mishna is teaching that without strong leadership of a nation, then anarchy will take over, and consequently people will ‘swallow each other alive’.4

In essence, Korach was in fact demanding anarchy - his argument was that there should not be any leader because all the people are holy. But, as the Mishna teaches, if his stated goal would have come to fruition, then the dire warning of the Mishna would have come into actuality and anarchy would rule, leading to the prospect of each man ‘swallowing’ his fellow. Accordingly, measure for measure, Korach and his assembly were punished by being swallowed themselves, signifying the damage that their plans posed for the well-being of each person.

One aspect of the punishment that may not be fully addressed by the Kli Yakar’s approach is that the Torah emphasizes not just that Korach and his congregation were swallowed up, but that the ground covered them up as well, indicating their total disappearance. Accordingly, it is possible to suggest an additional explanation as to the nature of this punishment.

Another Mishna in Pirkei Avot cites Korach’s dispute as the quintessential example of a machloket loh leshem Shamayim – a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven, rather it was motivated by selfish concerns.5 The Mishna asserts that such a dispute is ‘eino mitkayem’ – this is often translated as meaning ‘it does not last’ but perhaps a more literal interpretation is that it ceases to exist6. The commentaries offer interpretations as to what it means that the dispute does not last. Based on the Torah’s account of the story of Korach, it is possible to suggest that their punishment of being swallowed up and having the ground totally close itself up, is the manifestation of their dispute not lasting. Not only were they killed, but any remembrance of them was totally wiped out, including all their belongings. In this sense, not only did their dispute not last but it totally ceased to exist. Had the land simply swallowed them but left a gaping hole, then they would not have been totally erased from creation, but the closing up of the ground indicated that they did indeed completely cease to exist.

According to all the ways of understanding the severe punishment meted out to Korach and his cohorts, it is evident that the consequences of dispute are so severe that they merited a unique, miraculous punishment. Nowadays, such direct Divine Providence does not occur, but the dire harm caused by disputes is highly evident – whether they be disputes among families, communities, institutions, or anything else, the negative consequences are clear and everything possible should be done to avoid them. And if a dispute begins to develop, it is incumbent on anyone involved to do what he can to stem its development and if that is impossible, then to escape his own involvement.

  1. Such as Mezuzah, and Techeilet on Tzitzit.
  2. Bamidbar, 16:3.
  3. Pirkei Avot, 3:2.
  4. Kli Yakar, Bamidbar, 16:29.
  5. Avos, 5:17.
  6. The word kiyum is often used to refer to existence.

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