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Parashat 06/11/2010

Parashat Korach
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

For this week’s Parashah I would like to look at some teachings that I approach with great trepidation.  The area I’d like to discuss involves matters that the Sages of our tradition approached cautiously and to which they rarely gave definitive expression.  That being the case, certainly all I will attempt to do is to try to outline some of the parameters of the discussion.  I will be leaning heavily on the Artscroll (Schottenstein) edition of tractate Sanhedrin for much of the information I will present.

The 11th and final chapter of tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud is called Cheilek, or “Portion,” as it starts with the famous dictum “All Israel have a portion in the World to Come.”  The discussion however focuses on the exceptions – those whose sins were so egregious that they in fact lose their portion in the World to Come.  The connection to our Parashah is clear – Korach and his band are included in the latter group.  Or perhaps not, as we will see.

It is clear from all the teachings of our tradition that the physical world is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to evaluating the creation.  Just like there is a thin crust of congealed rock on the surface of the earth, and a vast ocean of lava and a (probably metallic) core at the center, so the physical universe is just the congealed crust of creation; there is a great sea of more refined, spiritual existence beneath it, and a core of infinity at its center.  In the case of the individual human being, the physical body is the outer “crust” and the soul is the spiritual inner life.  At the center of every human being’s existence is the absolute, infinite core of all existence.

Since this is the case, it is clear that when the body dies, the great bulk of the individual’s existence continues.  The main difference is that the limitations on perception and action imposed by the physical crust are no longer operative.  At the very core, nothing changes at all, since this level of existence is infinite and unchanging – in the words of the Sages, it is a “piece of Divinity.”  The soul however, lives on with an individual existence after the body dies.  According to our tradition the majority of the reward or punishment that the individual receives for actions taken when in a body occurs to the soul once the body has been sloughed off.

The 13th and last of Maimonides’ Principles of the Faith states that at some point Gd will resurrect bodies and reunite them with their souls, and at that point the righteous will live forever in spiritual bliss.  The Talmud (Berachot 17a) states: “In the World to Come there is no eating or drinking… rather the righteous sit with their crowns on their heads and delight in the radiance of the Divine Presence.”  This is said to refer to the reunited state of body and soul (see appendix to tractate Sanhedrin in the Artscroll edition).  R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato describes the body in this state as being completely purified to the point of pure spiritual existence.  Further, it is clear that our tradition recognizes that souls can take more than one body; for example the 10 Martyrs we read about on Yom Kippur are said to be reincarnations of the 10 brothers who sold Yosef (R. Akiva is specifically stated to be a reincarnation of Shimon); the prophet Eliyahu (Elijah) is said to be a reincarnation of Phinchas (about whom we will read in a couple of weeks); in the bedtime Sh’ma service we forgive everyone who ever harmed us “…in this incarnation or in any other incarnation.”  I mention these principles because they form a backdrop to what I am about to surmise, but I am not going to try to explain them fully because I don’t really understand them.

When a righteous person dies his soul goes directly to its eternal reward, however that may be pictured.  For the great majority of us, we have not sufficiently purified our souls during this lifetime.  Generally the soul becomes attached to the physical world and takes on some of its transitory nature.  After the body passes away, this attachment must be purified; this is said to take no more than 12 months for the worst sinners.  (For this reason we only say Kaddish for our parents for 11 months, so as not to imply that they need the full measure of atonement.)  After it has been purified the soul can receive its place in the World to Come, a place “closer” or “farther” from the Divine Presence according to the nature of its deeds on earth.

There are, apparently, some souls that have become damaged beyond repair, and these souls cannot be purified; somehow they cannot divorce themselves from physicality even after death.  Therefore they cannot ever assume the purely spiritual existence of the World to Come.  They are said to have lost their portion of the World to Come; alternatively they are said to have gone to Gehinnom.  Gehinnom is actually the name of a valley (gei = valley + Hinnom = name of the owners) outside Jerusalem where children were sacrificed to Moloch, hence the notion of fiery torment.  However the Maharal (R. Yehudah Loew ben Betzalel of Prague, 1525-1609) opines that Gehinnom is a state of non-being – the soul, having attached itself to the ephemeral, simply ceases to exist, as it can no longer support eternal existence.

This brings us to Korach and his followers.  When we say that Korach lost his portion of the World to Come perhaps we can interpret that his actions were so damaging that they affected his environment and his soul in such a negative way that his individuality could not be untangled from the twisted wreckage that he created in the universe.  When in the course of time Gd straightens out that twisting, the particular twists that were Korach will simply not exist any more, in the same way that your lap doesn’t exist when you stand up.

All this is of course speculative on my part.  The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b) says:

The  congregation of Korach has no share in the World to Come as it is stated “And the Land covered them over” – in this world, “and they were lost from amidst the congregation” – for the World to Come.  The words of R. Akiva.  R. Yehudah ben B’teira says “they are like a lost article that is searched for as it is stated “I have gone astray like a lost sheep – seek out your servant, for I have not forgotten your commandments.”

And in a similar passage the Sages comment that “R. Akiva departed from his usual generosity of spirit” in his evaluation of Korach and several others.  Thus it is not clear that even Korach, who almost destroyed the nation of Israel and its Divine mission before it had even gotten started, was so far gone that he had to pass completely out of existence.  And indeed if there is hope for Korach, surely we should not despair.  We may never attain the spiritual stature of our forebears, but as long as we continue to forge ahead with our spiritual development, as long as we persevere with honest effort, and pick ourselves up when we fall, we too can look forward to sitting with our crowns on our heads and delight in the radiance of the Shechinah.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 4

Mishnah 1

Ben Zoma says: … Who is strong?  One who conquers his [evil] inclination.

The soul is sent to this world of physicality to raise the nature of the physical towards the spiritual.  To do this, the soul must inhabit a physical body.  The challenge of this arrangement is to prevent the physical body from dragging the soul down.  The physical world offers quite a bit of pleasure.  If one gets caught up in chasing this pleasure, the soul gets attached to the pleasures, and therefore fails to maintain its independent status.  This tendency of the body to entrap the soul is called the evil inclination.  As infants we are totally wrapped up in our bodies; as we mature and become capable of making moral decisions we can gradually free ourselves from our evil inclination, but it is a constant battle, as we all know from hard experience!  But in doing battle with our evil inclination, we gain precious spiritual strength which our souls will then enjoy for eternity.