As oil continues to pour up into the Gulf of Mexico from a well dug deep beneath the ocean, we come to this week's portion, Korah, in which a group of rebels are swallowed alive into the depths of the earth. The image of these rebels going down into a chasm created by God sits side by side with the image of this other chasm that humans have opened up — and that's now ravaging our environment.
Korah is a collection of rebellions by differing parties against Moses and Aaron, contesting Moses' leadership and Aaron's exclusive right to serve as Tabernacle priest. The rebelling groups, which are sometimes conflated, are punished in several ways: swallowed alive by the earth, consumed by fire and struck by plague.
One question that comes after the rebellions and punishments is what happens to the sons of Korah? We read that all of Korah's people are swallowed by the earth, but also that "they went down alive into Sheol."
Later, in Numbers, when the rebellion is recalled, we read that the sons of Korah "did not die." There are actually 11 psalms attributed to them, and they went on to become part of the Levitical singers who composed psalms for the Temple.
Many midrashim play with the idea that the descendants of Korah remained alive when they were taken under the earth. Midrash Jonah imagines the fish who swallowed Jonah giving him a tour of the sea and the depths below it. Jonah sees the pillars of the earth and Sheol, the underworld. He also sees the foundation stone of the Temple, fixed deep down directly underneath the structure. The midrash explains: "on this stone, the sons of Korah continue to stand and pray."
Similarly, in tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud, Rabbah Bar Chanah meets someone who offers to show him the spot where Korah's people were swallowed by the earth, which is still smoldering. When Rabbah listens closely, he hears them saying "Moses and his Torah are true, and they [Korah's company] are liars."
These midrashim display the descendants of Korah in a positive light. They may be underground as part of the collective punishment of Korah and his rebels, but from the depths, they are calling out the truth. Jonah sees them praying to God at the very foundation of God's earthly abode, the Temple; Rabbah hears them refuting the claims of their ancestor Korah, and affirming Moses and his Torah.
The midrash on Psalms uses Korah's sons to illustrate how the redemption of Israel will take place. Israel asks God when God will redeem them, and God answers: "When you have gone down to the very bottom of the pit." Korah's sons are given as an example using the language of Psalm 44, attributed to them: "For our souls lie in the dust … Arise and help us."
In recent days, it feels as if we are at the bottom of a pit environmentally, unable to raise ourselves up from under the oil. This disaster is a culmination of longstanding harm and misuse of our natural resources. The midrashim dealing with Korah's sons teach us that repentance is the only way out. We must recognize the sins of our ancestors, and each individually take positive action to ensure that we do not re-enact them. This is how we will be redeemed — and remain alive — as did the sons of Korah.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. E-mail her at: [email protected]