Parashat Korah: The Origins of Korah’s Revolt
Parashat Korah tells of the revolt against Moshe’s leadership mounted by Moshe’s cousin, Korah, and a group of loyal followers. This uprising ended in tragedy, with G-d killing Korah and all his cohorts in miraculous fashion.
Rabbenu Bahya (Spain, 1255-1340) raises two questions about this episode. First, he asks why Moshe did not pray on behalf of the people as he did on previous occasions. He pleaded to G-d to spare Beneh Yisrael after their worshipped the golden calf, and also after the sin of the spies, when they displayed a lack of faith in G-d. Here, at the time of Korah’s revolt, Moshe did not pray for the people, and instead asked G-d to make a miracle and have the ground open and devour the leaders of the rebellion. Why?
Secondly, Rabbenu Bahya asks why even the children were punished. The Torah tells (16:32) that when the ground opened, it devoured not only the leaders of the rebellion, but also their families, including the children. Why were the innocent children punished for their parents’ mistake?
Rabbenu Bahya writes that in order to properly understand this story, we must resort to Kabbalistic teaching.
He explains that the origins of this episode can be found centuries earlier, in the story of the Dor Ha’palaga, the people of Babel, who built a city and tower to rebel against G-d. In response to their evildoing, G-d confused the people’s languages, causing them to be dispersed. Rabbenu Bahya writes that this generation was later reincarnated ("Gilgul") in the form of the people of Sedom. These people were sinful and corrupt, and G-d sent two angels to destroy the city and rescue Lot. We read in the Book of Bereshit (19:4) that while the angels were in Lot’s home, "the people of the city, the people of Sedom, surrounded the home," seeking to kill the two mysterious men. Rabbenu Bahya writes that the phrase "the people of the city" alludes to the fact that these were the builders of the city of Babel, who returned to the world as the townspeople of Sedom. Many years after the destruction of Sedom, Rabbenu Bahya explains, these people returned a third time, and were given one last opportunity to correct their sinful conduct. These were the people who rebelled against Moshe under the leadership of Korah. The Torah here in Parashat Korah (16:2) refers to these people as "Ansheh Shem" (literally, "men of renown"), alluding to the builders of the tower, whose goal was "Na’aseh Lanu Shem" – to make for themselves a name (Bereshit 11:4), in an effort to challenge G-d. This also explains why Datan and Abiram, two of the revolt’s leaders, responded to Moshe’s offer of peace by saying, "Even if you gore our eyes out, we will not come [to speak with you]" (16:14). This refers to the blindness with which the townspeople of Sedom were stricken when they tried to kill the angels in Lot’s home (Bereshit 19:11). Datan and Abiram were telling Moshe that they were prepared to suffer blindness a second time rather than yield to his authority.
Rabbenu Bahya writes that this understanding of the origins of Korah’s uprising answers the two questions he posed. Moshe, through prophecy, understood that these people had been brought back to the world in order to have one final opportunity to rectify their wrongdoing. Since they failed, and continued their rebelliousness, they were not deserving of another opportunity, and so he could not pray for them. And, even the children perished, because these children were, in truth, the souls of the adults from the generation of the tower and Sedom. They were not innocent children, but rather the souls of sinners from previous generations who were given one last opportunity for a Tikkun (rectification). This did not happen, and so they punished along with their parents.