This week, everything goes to hell.
You thought last week was bad, with its devastating curse of 40 years of desert wandering? This week the whole mission is threatening to fall apart.
This is the story of Korach’s rebellion. There in the sweltering desert heat, in the wake of a national catastrophe, tensions are rising high. Moses is barely able to keep the community together.
And then, suddenly, the last thing he needs: With 250 of the most powerful men in the community behind him, Korach – a prominent Levite – rises up and challenges Moses’ authority:
They surrounded Moses and Aaron and said, ‘You have too much! For all of the community are holy! All of them! And the Eternal is in their midst. Why have you raised yourselves above the Congregation of the Eternal? (Numbers 16:3)
וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל–מֹשֶׁה וְעַל–אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב–לָכֶם—כִּי כָל–הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים, וּבְתוֹכָם יה; וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ, עַל–קְהַל ה.
Oh, no. This is not good. The Israelites have endured Egyptian oppression, and even had their fights with God. But what happens when they begin to turn on each other? Moses immediately “falls on his face” in anguish, because he knows that this situation could get very bad, very quickly. And it does.
How bad does it get? Two words: dead babies.
That’s right, I said it: Dead. Babies.
Korach and Moses are going to settle their dispute the only way things get settled in the wild – with a showdown. Except that instead of drawing guns, here in the Wild, Wild East, the weapon of choice is a fire-pan. Each side will bring an incense offering to the Lord in their fire-pans. God picks the winner.
How do we know who God picks? Well, Moses promises, you will know that Korach is guilty of treason if…
…the ground opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything they have, and they go down alive into Sheol. (16:30)
וּפָצְתָה הָאֲדָמָה אֶת פִּיהָ וּבָלְעָה אֹתָם וְאֶת–כָּל–אֲשֶׁר לָהֶם, וְיָרְדוּ חַיִּים, שְׁאֹלָה
And that, I’m afraid, is exactly what happened. No sooner had Moses finished speaking, when the ground burst open and they went down, “all of Korach’s people.” (v. 32)
Wait…all of Korach’s people? That’s right. That includes Korach’s main henchmen, of course. But that’s not all. Look at who else was there:
…they stood at the entrance of their tents, with their wives, their children, and their infants. (v. 27)
וַיֵּעָלוּ, מֵעַל מִשְׁכַּן–קֹרַח דָּתָן וַאֲבִירָם—מִסָּבִיב; וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם יָצְאוּ נִצָּבִים, פֶּתַח אָהֳלֵיהֶם, וּנְשֵׁיהֶם וּבְנֵיהֶם, וְטַפָּם.
And they all went down, into the ground.
Now, I don’t care how bad Korach was. You’re not going to convince me that his children – even the little infants – deserved to die.
Come and see how destructive conflict is! For, see now, an earthly court does not punish someone unless they’ve reached puberty. And the heavenly court does not punish someone under twenty. But here, even those still nursing at their mothers’ breasts were destroyed.
בֹּא וּרְאֵה כַּמָּה קָשָׁה הַמַּחֲלֹקֶת, שֶׁהֲרֵי בֵית דִּין שֶׁל מַטָּה אֵין עוֹנְשִׁין אֶלָּא עַד שֶׁיָּבִיא שְׁתֵּי שְׂעָרוֹת, וּבֵית דִּין שֶׁל מַעְלָה עַד עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה, וְכַאן אָבְדוּ אַף יוֹנְקֵי שָׁדַיִם
Okay, so Rashi is acknowledging that this is pretty horrifying. And he’s saying that no just court would ever execute a minor. Good, I agree – killing kids is wrong. But… that doesn’t solve our problem.
Because doesn’t God Almighty do just that here in our story?? What good does it do me to hear that we generally don’t believe in punishing children when we just did it anyway?! And yes, sure, conflict is destructive, very true – but it’s God who sent them all to Hell!
I say ‘Hell,’ and I know some of you are thinking, “Hey, Jews don’t believe in Hell!” And anyway, it doesn’t say they went down to Hell. It says they went down to ‘Sheol.’
So, first of all, it’s not totally clear what ‘Sheol’ is in Hebrew literature, but it seems to be some kind of dark underworld where the dead go and are cut off from God. That might not be hell, but it sounds close enough to me.
Secondly, I’m sorry to tell you this, but…Jews do believe in Hell. Or, at least, the concept exists in Jewish literature. And we’ve even got our own word for it: Gehinnom.
Now, I don’t know if the Sheol in our story is the same as the rabbinic concept of Gehinnom, and if it’s really fair to say that these babies went to Hell. But let’s assume for a moment that it is. Because that gives me a chance to show you one of the most profound pieces of Torah commentary I’ve ever come across.
First of all, the Maharal is also troubled by this same question: how can God punish babies?? But what he says not only does away with the question entirely, but also reconceptualizes our whole notion of Hell. Listen to this:
If you ask, ‘What is different about this sin from any other sin in the world, that children are not punished for?’ You should know the essential reason, which is that when we say that a child is not punished, we mean that God would not bring punishment on a child. But conflict does. Because the essence of Hell is conflict…. And therefore even the child is punished, because the punishment comes from the thing itself. For the Blessed God does not bring punishment upon a child – but the conflict itself is the punishment. So no one has to bring punishment upon the child for the child to be punished.
ואם תאמר, מאי שנא חטא זה מכל חטאים בעולם, שאין הקטן נענש. ויש לך לדעת עיקר הטעם, כי מה שאין הקטן נענש, כי אין הקב“ה מביא עונש על קטן. אבל במחלוקת, שגוף הגיהנום דבק במחלוקת… ולכך נענש אף הקטן, כי העונש בא מעצמו. כי השם יתברך אין מעניש הקטן להביא עליו עונש, אבל עם המחלוקת עצמו הוא העונש, ואין צריך להביא עליו, והוא נענש.
According to the Maharal, when we say that these children are in Hell, we are saying that when adults bring violence into the world, they create a living hell for themselves – and their innocent children are swallowed up into it with them. So the story which appears, on its face, to be about God’s punishment of the mutineers is really just a representation of what is already actually happening in human society when it starts to unravel. This kind of Hell is not a punishment, but everyone must suffer in it.
But is the Maharal really saying that Hell – as a physical place – doesn’t exist?? Or am I just reading into him what I want to see? Well, bear with me, and take a look at one other place where he discusses the concept, and is much more explicit. This is in another one of his books, Derech Chaim, his commentary on Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers)
The idea of Hell and the idea of conflict are one thing. It is known that Hell is the name for the loss of a person. And so it is, itself, conflict. For conflict is nothing but loss. That is, when one thing is divided into two, like one vessel broken into two, there is no doubt that this is loss and brokenness. It only really existed when it was one. And therefore, conflict and Hell – which is the loss of existence… are really one idea.
ענין הגיהנם וענין המחלוקת דבר אחד הוא. וידוע כי הגיהנם שם הוא הפסד האדם ומי שראוי אליו ההפסד מקומו הוא הגיהנם, שתראה כי הגיהנם הוא ההפסד בעצמו. וכן הוא בעצמו המחלוקת שאין המחלוקת רק ההפסד, וזה כי כאשר דבר אחד נחלק לשנים כמו כלי אחד שנחלק לשנים אין ספק כי דבר זה הוא הפסד ושבירה וקיומו כאשר הוא אחד, ולפיכך המחלוקת והגיהנם שהוא הפסד הנמצאים… ענין אחד להם
There you have it. Hell is conflict. Conflict is Hell. They are one and the same. Hell is not a place we go to. Hell is a state of being. And it is one we bring about ourselves. Sarte famously said, “Hell is other people.” And General Sherman, of the Union Army, said that, “War is hell.” Well, I think the Maharal would say that Hell is people at war – or in any kind of bitter conflict with one another.
But wait. Could Jewish thought actually reject conflict as a concept? Doesn’t the whole of our intellectual tradition celebrate heated discussion and disagreement? Doesn’t the very genre of parshanut, Torah commentary, suggest the multiplicity of legitimate interpretations and conflicting ideas? What ever happened to, “Two Jews, three opinions”?
Well, as a matter of fact, the word I have been translating all along as conflict – machloket (מחלוקת) – is also frequently translated as, ‘debate.’ Indeed, here is how it appears in the very piece from ‘The Ethics of the Fathers’ that the Maharal was referencing:
Every debate that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure. Every debate that is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure. What debate was for the sake of Heaven? The debate of Hillel and Shammai. What debate was not for the sake of Heaven? The debate of Korach and all of his community. (Pirkei Avot, 5:16)
כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ
Conflict doesn’t have to be Hell. Debate doesn’t have to tear the community apart. The debate between the two great schools that started rabbinic Judaism – Hillel and Shammai, is still celebrated as having produced the richness of our tradition of Torah study – a tradition that endures up to this very day. This was a debate for the sake of Heaven.
But the debate of Korach was conflict for its own sake. Debate for the purpose of division, an attack meant to break everything apart. Korach separated himself (ויקח קרח) in order to bring about loss to the whole. He created a Hell on earth. And everyone around him fell into it.
If Hell is division and separation, then Heaven would be unification and togetherness. So can we debate fiercely with one another, but in search of common ground? Can we allow ourselves to fight, sometimes bitterly, but always with the recognition that we are all one people? Can we create Heaven on earth?
Alas, thousands of years after Korach’s rebellion, we are still trying to figure this out. And the ground is getting shaky beneath our feet.