It was a terrible moment. The moment the earth swallowed Korach and his men:
“The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all the people who were with Korach, and the entire wealth. They and all that was theirs descended alive to the pit; the earth covered them over and they were lost from among the congregation. All Israel that was around them fled at their sound, for they said, ‘Lest the earth swallow us!’” (Numbers 16:32-34).
The entire nation stood and stared brokenly at the empty swath of land where Korach, his family, and everyone associated with him had stood only a minute or two before. The dramatic event had been emblazoned on the nations’ consciousness, shining in hideous clarity against the backdrop of the empty desert sands and sky. They were gone now. Gone.
Like the sombre quiet echoing through a crowded city after an earthquake, the shattered nation tried to piece themselves back together in the shocked silence. The transition had been too fast: a scanty hour ago the uproar of mutiny had rocked the Jewish encampment in a tidal wave drawing dozens of the nation in its’ terrible wake. The Jewish People had been at the edge of their proverbial seat waiting to find out what would come of the bitter uprising of Korach and his followers against the leadership of Moshe (Moses) and Aharon (Aaron). Tempestuous emotions flared, tumult ensued, and everyone bided their time for the final show-down when leadership of the nation swathed in miracles would be determined once and for all.
And now – it was over. Neither hair nor hide was left of the mutineers. The place where they had stood was empty, empty. If not for the noise that had wreathed the moments before the silence, it would have seemed as though they had never existed at all.
But the meaning behind what had happened bothered the commentaries. At glance, this event seemed to be a radical departure from the regular behaviour of Moshe vis-a-vis the sins of the nation. When the nation had pooled their gold to construct and worship a golden calf less than two months after hearing the Almighty speak with their own ears – Moshe had prayed for the Almighty’s mercy to save them from the dire consequences. When the twelve spies sent to spy out Israel for conquest came back with such a negative report that the entire nation began weeping against what was to be one of the Almighty’s greatest gifts – Moshe intervened in their favour once again.
In this case, however, Moshe demanded justice: “Moshe said, ‘Through this you shall know that Hashem sent me to perform all these acts, that it was not from my heart. If these die like the death of all men, and the destiny of all men is visited upon them, then it is not Hashem Who has sent me. But if Hashem will create a phenomenon, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them and all that is theirs, and they will descend alive to the pit – then you shall know that these men have provoked Hashem!’” It was in that moment, “when he finished speaking all these words, the ground that was under them split open” (Numbers 16:28-31). What made the mutiny led by Korach any different?
What made this different is explained in the words of Moshe himself: “Through this you shall know that Hashem sent me to perform all these acts, that it was not from my heart.” This sin was different from the nations’ other sins in that it cut to the core of what it meant to be Jewish.
Prior sins had touched upon specific aspects of the Jewish value system. They had perverted various pointed issues relevant to Jewish purpose and growth, but they had not poisoned the fulcrum of Jewish existence: loyalty to the Almighty and His Torah. Because of this, Moshe had demanded the leeway from on high to lead the nation back to it’s true spiritual identity. This case was different. Korach’s rebellion aimed struck at the root of what it means to be Jewish, the foundation of which is our relationship with Torah as a body of guidance given by the Almighty Himself. Over two million people had heard the Almighty give the first two of the ten commandments and then call, “Moshe, Moshe, come up to the mountain.” Korach denial of Moshe’s authority was a denial of the veracity of the Almighty Himself, and everything that He had to say.
Korach undermined the people’s relationship with Torah. The danger of Korach’s blatant criticism of Moshe and Aharon’s leadership infected the essence of Jewish identity. Stance against this needed to be quick, and to leave no room for doubt.
The trauma of what had occurred knocked any theological confusion straight into crystal-clear focus. Korach’s insidious spell was broken. Amputation is never a first choice, but sometimes extreme measures are needed to save a life. In this case, all of our lives.