As increased attention is being paid to the problematic incarceration complex in the United States, especially in light of Michelle Alexander’s sobering book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, policy makers, social service providers, educators, and law enforcement officials are also considering the vertical effects of criminal stigmatization on the children of the incarcerated. Last year, Sesame Street even saw fit to release a segment on its web site about children with incarcerated parents, which aroused ire from some observers appalled that this normalized criminality. Though it is unclear that children of incarcerated parents engage in any higher levels of criminality than their peers, stigmas often cling to such children from the outside. In that context, it is instructive to consider a brief, four-word aside in this week’s Torah portion. In the context of a census taken after two brutal acts of Divine carnage, the Torah matter-of-factly claims (Numbers 26:11), “And the children of Korach did not die. וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ. Why didn’t they die, why might that surprise us, and why does the Torah bother to mention it?
Let’s back up. Three weeks ago, we read of the Torah’s arch-criminal-in-our-midst, Korach, and the crushing defeat of his attempted insurrection (Numbers 16-18). Numbers 16:32 narrates the punishment for Korach and his entourage: “And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all persons with Korach, and their property. וַתִּפְתַּח הָאָרֶץ אֶת פִּיהָ וַתִּבְלַע אֹתָם וְאֶת בָּתֵּיהֶם וְאֵת כָּל הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר לְקֹרַח וְאֵת כָּל הָרֲכוּשׁ.” That sure makes it sound like Korach’s children were swallowed by the earth: who is more part of his household, who is more with him, than his children? Yet our parasha insists that his children did not die.
Not only that, but the later Biblical history nonchalantly relates that Korach’s direct descendant Heman was one of King David’s appointees to be in charge of song in the Temple (I Chronicles 6:16-23), and others of Korach’s descendants were the Temple gatekeepers and chefs (I Chronicles 9:17-32). Quite a turnaround: from Korach being the chief threat to the Priesthood, to his descendants directing security and food production — areas where one can most easily murder, poison, stage a coup. Apparently it wasn’t just Heman who had musical prowess, as ten of the Bible’s Psalms are attributed in their first line to the children of Korach (Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, and 87). The Rabbis seem to understand the significance of this, in that their midrash on Psalm 1, which is not authored by Korach’s children, reads the whole poem as actually telling the story of Korach’s children’s rejection of their father’s ways, as if to say that the central theme of the book of Psalms is Korach’s children’s authorship of many of its poems.
How did this happen? How did Korach commit such villainy that his whole household was swallowed alive by the earth, and yet his children and descendants became some of the tradition’s most creative, dedicated, and productive artists?
The Rabbis derive a clue from the context of our verse. After introducing Korach’s coalition partners, Datan and Aviram, in the census, the Torah reminds us: “These are that Dahan and Aviram, the elect of the congregation, who strove against Moses and against Aaron in the company of Korach, when they strove against YHWH. And the earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them up together with Korach, as that company died, as the fire devoured 250 people, and they became a sign. But the children of Korach did not die” (26:9-11). Stumbling over the jagged edges of the unusual, multiple, prepositional phrases, the Rabbis break up the passage as though it means, “And the earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them up together with Korach, as that company died, as the fire devoured 250 people. And they became a sign, as the children of Korach did not die.” Against the more obvious reading that the death of the masses of sinners was the sign — literally, the banner — before the people, presumably about God’s dominion and harsh justice, the Rabbis read the surviving children to have been the banner, and in a literal way: “When Korach and his gang were swallowed up, his children found themselves like the mast of a ship, as it says, ‘and they were a banner’. Rabbi said, every place around them was ruptured, but the very place that stood beneath them was not ruptured” (Midrash Psalms 1). Or, as the same sage said elsewhere, “A place was set apart for them in Gehinom, and they sat upon it and sang songs” (TB Sanhedrin 110a-b). Their survival was a fluke. The ground caved, leaving caverns and new plateaus, and they happened to catch a piece of earth jutting into the air like a flag and hold on tight, sitting upon it. Physics saved them from certain death, even in a moment of supernatural suspension of the laws of nature.
Dumb luck may have saved them, but that does not mean that justice was not done. The Rabbis tell us two things that should make us very afraid about the caprice involved in their lucky survival. First, though it was luck that saved them, they did have merit: Psalm 1 opens, “Happy is the person who does not walk in the council of the wicked”. The Rabbis explain, “This is the sons of Korach, who did not walk in the council of their father, as is said, ‘Turn away please, from the tents of these wicked men’ (Bemidbar 16:26). When God warned people to clear out before killing Korach and his posse, apparently Korach’s children did turn away; even so, the same midrash later explains that their survival was dependent on the ground beneath them jutting into the air (Midrash Psalms 1). Some of their relatives were not so lucky. The same gemara that teaches that they were intended for Gehinom but remained perched above, continues: “Rabbah bar bar Hannah said, One time I was walking in my way and a certain Arab said to me, ‘Come and I will show you the swallowed ups of Korach.’ I saw two cracks from which smoke emerged. He took a woolen cloth, dipped it in water, stuck it on the head of a spear and inserted it there and it got singed. He said to me, ‘Listen to what you hear,’ and I heard them saying that Moshe is true and his Torah is true, and that they are liars” (Sanhedrin, ibid.). The whole family repented and separated from Korach’s villainy. Most of them were associated and wiped out with him anyway, testifying to the better way from the netherworld, while the children remained above ground, able to testify in the land of the living.
The second thing is how they responded to that luck. The Sages don’t imagine them just holding on for dear life on their jutting earth-corner, but sitting there and opening in song. They received their good fortune, grace, luck, being alive when they might have expected to be otherwise, by singing. We are still singing their songs today. Noticing that one of their psalms, #45, begins, “For the leader on the lilies, of the sons of Korach, a maskil, a song for beloved ones”, the Sages connect it to another verse about lilies and lovers, “My lover went down to his garden…and to pluck lilies” (Song of Songs 6:2) and notes: “They weren’t recognizable, and everyone who would see them would say, “they’re thorns”. Why? Because they were with thorns. And what is the way of thorns? For fire… And the sons of Korach, who were lilies, were plucked up from between the thorns, so that they not be consumed with the thorns. So, The Holy Blessed One jumped and saved them…” (Midrash Psalms 45). Everybody just saw a bunch of hoodlums, terrorists, gangbangers around Korach, not noticing the poets and worshipers, guardians, and artists caught up in the masses. God notices, and so must we.
Driving the point home, a stunning passage elsewhere, after telling of the brutality of our enemies in both Temple destructions, insists that “Some of the descendants of Haman learned/taught Torah in Bnei Brak, some of the descendants of Sisera taught children in Jerusalem, some of the descendants of Sancheriv taught Torah to the masses” (Gittin 57b). Who are these descendants of Sancheriv the destroyer, who exiled the northern kingdom? No less than “Shemaya and Avtalyon”, the teachers of the great Hillel.
Seeing only thorns and setting fire to the whole field, without paying attention to each living organism, means no Hillel, no learning for the masses, ten fewer psalms, etc., etc. When so-called justice systems operate with blunt instruments, when children are convicted by association, when their association was imposed by the judge and executioner, everybody loses.