“All of the assembly in its entirety are holy and G-d is among them!” shouted Korach, poised at the head of the mob of rebels who had gathered to challenge Moses and Aaron. “Why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d!” (Numbers 16:3).
The Talmud records that Korach’s attacks against Moses were not merely political, but far sharper and more personal. According the Talmudic account, among other criticisms, Korach actually accused Moses of the crime of adultery!
While attacking Moses on the basis of his position of authority seems understandable, to malign a man of Moses’ inimitable character and reputation with intimations that he had committed adultery enters the realm of the ridiculous! What is the meaning of this strange Talmudic teaching?
The answer to this mystery, as with many mysteries of the Torah, lies at the core of the history of Man.
“Let Us make Man…” (Genesis 1:26). The Almighty consulted with his council of spiritual ministers before creating Mankind. Our tradition teaches that these heavenly ministers objected to the Almighty’s plan, explaining that Man, as a being with physical elements, may succumb to material temptation, polluting the universe with sin. Man, therefore, deserves not any place in the kingdom of the Almighty. G-d overrides the opinion of his ministers and proceeds with the creation of Adam. Thenceforth, throughout history, as mankind failed to live up to the course of holiness prescribed for them by the Almighty, the angels would continually remind the Lord of their initial objection and His failure to heed their counsel.
Subsequent to Adam’s fall from grace, the Torah describes how Adam’s sons Cain (Kayin) and Abel (Hevel) vie for the Almighty’s favor. While Abel brings an offering from the fattest of his flock, Cain offers only the cheapest of his crop. The Almighty favors Abel’s offering, and in a fit of jealousy, Cain murders his brother Abel.
“G-d said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel, your brother?’ [Cain] said, ‘I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ [G-d] said, ‘What have you done! The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth! And now you are accursed from the earth that opened its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand!’” (ibid 4:9-11).
Our tradition further teaches that Cain’s jealousy of Abel stemmed not only from the Almighty’s reaction to their offerings, but from a number of other factors as well. Among them, Cain was born together with a twin sister who would become his wife, while Abel was born with two twin sisters who would become his wives. Cain thought, “Should the younger have two while the elder has but one?”
Subsequent to Abel’s murder, the Almighty’s heavenly ministers seize the opportunity to brag that they were right once again about mankind. “Look how this one murdered because of jealousy over such material desires!” G-d replies to them that so long as they, as spiritual beings, cannot be tempted by physical desire, they have no right to criticize those who suffer from such temptation. The Lord’s ministers, disgusted at the suggestion that something so lowly as the material could offer any allure to beings so pure as themselves, urge G-d to offer them the opportunity to prove themselves. The Almighty obliges, sending two of these spiritual beings to earth in physical form.
What follows? “The Sons of Eloh-im saw that the daughters of Man were good, and they took for themselves wives from whomever they chose” (ibid 6:2). According to Rashi, these “Sons of Eloh-im” were, “the ministers who act in the agency of the Lord,” i.e. G-d’s spiritual ministers who had been sent to the earthly realm. According to mystical tradition, the “daughters of Man,” here mean not merely women of the human persuasion, but the actual daughters of Adam, i.e. the two sisters of Abel. G-d tests those spiritual ministers who criticized Cain’s actions with the exact same stimulus that led Cain himself to commit his jealous murder. These spiritual beings too, now susceptible to material temptation, succumb to their newfound urge to take these woman as wives.
The visitors from the spiritual realm solicit the daughters of Adam for marriage. These holy women, not wanting to enter such an ill-conceived relationship, but knowing these beings hold the power to force the issue, concede, but on condition. The daughters of Adam stipulate that as these spiritual visitors hold the option to return to the heavenly realm at any time, they must teach these women the Name of G-d that would allow them to do the same in such an eventuality. The spiritual beings comply, teach them the Name, and immediately the daughters of Adam use the Name to ascend to the heavenly realm before any union can be realized. While the spiritual ministers remain below, wreaking the havoc that the Almighty predicted, these holy women remain above, seeking asylum from these destructive creatures.
According to mystical tradition, many generations later, during the ascendance of the Pharaohs of Egypt, these two women are brought back into the earthly realm, one as Bithyah, daughter of Pharoah, the other as Tziporah, daughter of Jethro. At that time as well, the souls of Cain and Abel are brought back into the world as Korach and Moses, respectively. The daughter of Pharoah, one of Abel’s former wives, rescues Abel, now Moses, from the Nile River, and raises him as a son. Moses later marries Tziporah, also his wife during his previous incarnation.
As Moses achieves ascendency over Israel, the soul of Cain, now Korach, undergoes the same trial of spirit to overcome his jealousy that he failed during his first incarnation. The Almighty has granted Korach the opportunity to achieve rectification for his tainted soul, yet Korach tragically allows his millennia-old jealousy to overwhelm him, mounting a rebellion against the man that G-d has favored once again.
But how does this help us understand Korach’s shocking accusation against the humblest of all men?
According to Torah law, if a man dies childless, his brother should marry the widow in order to grant continuity to the deceased brother’s legacy. In the case of Cain and Abel, since Abel died childless, the rights to marry Abel’s wives belonged to Cain. This was the substance of Korach’s accusation. As the reincarnation of Cain, these rights now belonged to him! Tziporah, then, formerly the wife of Abel, should be the rightful wife of Korach, not Moses. Ergo, Moses’ marriage to Tziporah constituted an adulterous relationship!
Korach erred in his calculation, however, his raging jealousy blinding him to the elementary precept that, “one cannot fulfill a commandment through transgression of another commandment.” Since Cain’s obligation to marry Abel’s wives only came about through the murder of Abel, no such obligation actually took effect! In this case, Cain had no legitimate claim to Abel’s wives, nor did Korach have any legitimate right to marry Tziporah. Moses escapes any calumny laid upon him by Korach, while Korach must face the consequences of his missteps once again.
We can now gain a deeper appreciation of Korach’s bizarre demise. “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them” (Numbers 16:32). Why was this the form of Korach’s destruction? Remember the words of the Almighty to Cain after the murder of Abel: “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the earth! And now you are accursed from the earth that opened its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand!” Just as the earth opened its mouth to absorb Cain’s original sin, so would the earth open its mouth again to claim the perpetrator of that sin. And indeed, according to mystical tradition, the place where the earth “opened its mouth” to swallow Korach was the same exact spot where Cain had murdered Abel millennia earlier.
The Torah instructs us not to be like Korach and his assembly. Korach’s character flaws plagued him not only through two lifetimes, but for all eternity. Our Sages teach us that Korach remains forever suspended in the endless chasm born of his reticence to accept reproof for his recalcitrance, eternally declaring his regret. Learning not from his errors, he doomed himself to repeat them. Let us not be like Korach. Let us assert ourselves in a genuine effort to perfect our character, and instead of the legacy of strife left behind by Korach, may we merit to bring a legacy of everlasting peace to our world, to our posterity, and to all Israel.