Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Korach, and if you join us tomorrow morning, you will have the opportunity to learn from our Bar Mitzvah about some of Korach’s admirable qualities. I have always felt that Korach is misunderstood and overly judged in our tradition, and enjoy a good d’var Torah about his bravery and righteousness such as you can hear tomorrow.
This year, I realized something new about Korach, though. In this week’s parasha, after Korach challenges Moses’s authority, Moses pray for God to show the people who’s really in charge, and God complies by having the earth open up and swallow all of Korach and his fellow democracy-seeking rebels. The Torah says here, “The ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people.” This would seem to me to clearly indicate that all of Korachs children and family were killed as well. However, it came to my attention that several of the Psalms are explicitly attributed to the sons of Korach. Tradition holds that the Book of Psalms as a whole was written by David, and many of the Psalms included in our prayer books are Davidic. Some Psalms refer to exile, or even specifically Babylon, and so historically could not have been written by David, but I never noticed before this week that in fact, some Psalms are named for the sons of Korach as clearly as some are named for David. They are Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87, 88, in case you were wondering.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 110a) suggests that there was a “place reserved for [the sons of Korach] in the underworld and they sat there and sang,” which to me sounds evocative of one of the other non-Davidic Psalms to which I just referred. Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion, we hung our lyres on the willows in its midst. For there those who carried us away captive required of us a song, and those who tormented us required of us mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” This Psalm is not specifically attributed to the sons of Korach, but the ones that are, which less well-known and not covered by Bob Marley, communicate a similar feeling. They all speak of feeling close to death, of great destruction to their communities and abilities to worship, of a commitment to God and Judaism anyway. They use imagery of lyres and song and waters. Some have a happier or more hopeful feel and seem to have been written in Jerusalem, though many are more dour, frightened, yet somehow still determined to find hope again and committed to faith in God. Of the more dour ones, some strongly indicate having been written in exile, though none as explicitly as Psalm 137, and others are more ambiguous as to their geography.
Let’s start with the Talmudic midrash that the earth opened up on the House of Korach and imagine the wrath of God indiscriminately swallowing up rebels and those merely adjacent to them. The sons of Korach, whether they were personally in favor of the project for democratization or for Moses’s Divinely elected leadership, were not names among the rebels, and do not wish to be a part of the disruption of the community either way. They do not feel they should be a part of this sweeping punishment, and they call out to God to spare them. They see their reservations in Sheol, the underworld, like Scrooge with his third ghost, and they are determined to be better. They sing their hearts out, and are spared. Korach is identified as a Levi, so these sons are already dedicated to serve in the Mishkan and their sons will be dedicated to serve in the future Temple, but now that God has heard their plaintive song and recognized their heartfelt prayer, they become the official songleaders and cantors of the Mishkan and Temple as well.
Now adding to the scene set for us from the Talmud and with the Psalms as props, let’s imagine also that from generation to generation, the descendants of Korach pass on this story, their own mythos for their particular family, such that they remain identified with the punished rebellious patriarch throughout the years and generations and family relocations. The generations of the Temple held a special, holy role in beautifying worship, and the generations of Babylonian exile maintained Jewish connection to God and the Holy Land through their songs and poems. Perhaps not the songs of Zion, because it was too painful to sing songs meant for the Temple without a Temple, but new songs, new understandings of their roles as priests and poets for a newly traumatized community. When the generations of the Temple sang their songs over their burnt offerings, they remembered the fire pans of their forefather and his followers, rejected by God. They remembered the fire of the Lord that flew forth and consumed those who denied the Divine election of Moses. They took great pains to ensure their offerings were correct, that their prayers were truly for the good of the whole community, for they knew the dire consequences of any misstep, even a misguided attempt toward something seemingly positive.
Their children saw how those offerings and prayers weren’t enough, witnessed the destruction of the first Temple anyway, were carried off to exile. As they sat by the rivers of Babylon weeping, they remembered their ancestors who sat by the opening to Sheol, which perhaps felt like the same thing to them. To be so far from home, from the Temple, from their intended duties, was already akin to death. But they remembered that song saved the sons of Korach and perhaps it would save them now. They sang new songs of hope and yearning and praise that God will remember the Chosen People and drive away their enemies, just as God had done for the generation that entered the Holy Land alongside Joshua. They summoned the strength and faith of their great-great-great-grandfathers and prayed in beautiful song until they felt free again.
Somewhere along the way, the line was broken. Though some claim to know their tribes or even specific Biblical ancestors, it’s hard to say for certainty where each ancient line has gone, or how far back each of us can reasonably trace our heritage. But just as we can all identify ourselves at least as spiritual descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, anyone who has ever felt the power of song get them through a hard time can claim to be a spiritual descendant of the sons of Korach. Songs can inspire change and progress, can instill calm and peace, can spur creativity. May you all find the song in your heart that helps you carry out the story of your ancestors, and may we learn to sing each other’s songs together. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.