This week’s Torah portion, Korah, tells a spectacular story of rebellion and punishment. Korah challenges Moses and Aaron’s rule with a deceptively simple argument: “All of the community is holy.… What makes you so special that you raise yourselves up?” (Numbers 16:3) Coming as it does from his very own tribe, Moses falls into despair. Then he rises to the challenge and puts Korah to the test. When God decides in favor of Moses and Aaron, the earth opens its maw and swallows up the rebels, “their households, every man who was for Korah, and all their possessions. They and all they had went down alive to Sheol.… ”(Numbers 16:32-33)
The lesson seems pretty brutal: Folks who think they deserve to be the leaders do not change, they merely bide their time. To hell with them, for there is no possibility of change. On the surface of the Torah’s text, Moses’ uncharacteristic lack of humility in defending his turf, coupled with God’s miraculous connivance, seems to say: There is no hope for repentance; only rough justice is possible.
Fortunately, the Torah’s surface is textured, with ample room for interpretation to mitigate the harshness of this lesson. Midrashic reading reminds us that there is always a place for teshuvah (repentance). The verse tells us, “every man who was for Korah… went down alive to Sheol,” from which the rabbis infer that some of Korah’s band changed their minds. They did not continue in their challenge of Moses, for they had done Teshuvah. There can be change after all, for even rebels can see the light.
This rabbinic reinterpretation is buttressed by a curious fact of the Bible. Seven Psalms (42, 44, 49, 84, 85, 87, 88) begin with an attribution to “the sons of Korah.” Just as some Psalms are attributed to David, these seven are attributed to Korah’s offspring. These Psalms are read as praise of repentance, sung by the descendants of the arch-rebel Korah. Rashi explains, “These sons of Korah began as part of their father’s conspiracy, but when the confrontation reached a peak they withdrew, so that when everything around them was swallowed up and the earth opened its mouth, their place remained unscathed, as it says (Numbers 26:11), ‘the sons of Korah did not die.’ From that very place they sang, and from there those Psalms were established and ascended.”
I recently returned from a month of teaching in Moscow. At the Russian State University for the Humanities, as a guest of the Russian government and under the aegis of the Jewish Theological Seminary, I taught Jewish studies to second- and third-year university students. My Russian students were interested in Judaism, in America, in the English language, in Nike, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. They were absolutely fascinated to learn that I had been to Moscow before they were born.
My first trip to Russia was in 1977 to help Soviet Jews find their freedom. In those days, the Russians were the bad guys, we were the good guys and helping Russian Jews emigrate was a big mitzvah. We visited “refuseniks” in the hopes that our attention would win them their freedom. In 1994, I returned to Russia to teach at the new Russian State University for the Humanities opened under Boris Yeltsin. The chance to teach Jewish studies in Russia was too rich to pass up. But Russia herself was poor. People stood outside the metro stops, selling their household goods just to get by. In the corner kiosks, one could buy 180 proof alcohol and firearms, but there was little else for sale. Still, the heady days of freedom lent a chaotic carnival air to the newly liberated city.
This year, I returned again to teach Jewish studies. There was food in abundance in the stores. Russians could shop, speak their minds, wear blue jeans. Advertising caught my eye wherever I gazed. It seemed that Russia had embraced capitalism with a vengeance. Even as Putin tightened the reins, Jewish studies flourished at the University of the Humanities, and at Moscow State University, and in Jewish-sponsored “universities” around the country. I do not wish to sound unduly naive, for many problems remain and there is cause for concern. But since 1977, and even since 1994, things have changed profoundly. This above all was my lesson for my young Russian students.
Let us sing a Psalm of the sons of Korah, to the possibilities of change.
Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky teaches Midrash at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky is the Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies and Director of the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue at Jewish Theological Seminary