The Empty Chair

Few individuals in Tanach are as complex and seemingly contradictory as Korach. According to the literal reading of the pesukim and many meforshim, he appears to represent the embodiment of arrogance and wrongdoing. Yet according to the Arizal he will serve as Kohen Gadol when Moshiach comes, and many sefarim portray him as a spiritual giant who made a tragic miscalculation.

What is certain is that we cannot fathom the true levels of that generation; all we can do is try to learn the lessons that are applicable to us.

* * *

It is no surprise that integral to Korach’s rebellion were two familiar characters, Dasan and Aviram. These two men had repeatedly stirred up trouble against Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and their vendetta against Moshe Rabbeinu was more than half a century old.

Back in Mitzrayim, it was they who had maliciously informed on Moshe Rabbeinu, a mesirah that nearly cost him his life. Moshe miraculously escaped the executioner’s sword but he was forced to flee for his life.

When Moshe Rabbeinu was sent back to Mitzrayim perhaps fifty years later to lead Bnei Yisrael out of exile, surely these two should have been left behind. But they followed the people out, and then they never missed an opportunity to show their ingratitude for their redemption.

Now, as they helped lead Korach’s rebellion, Moshe actually went in person to their tents to try to dissuade them from their sinful path.

“From here we learn ein machzikin b’machlokes — one should not persist in a machlokes,” Chazal teach us. It appears that this directive has virtually no limits; even when an enemy tried to kill you, and then repeatedly rose against you, still — “one should not persist in a machlokes!”

* * *

The meforshim wonder about the latter part of this saga, when Moshe Rabbeinu requested Hashem to create a new entity — a pit in the earth that would swallow up the rebels and all that belonged to them, and into which they should descend alive.

Moshe Rabbeinu constantly exhibited limitless ahavah to his brethren, and repeatedly was moser nefesh for them. Chazal tell us that he told the Ribbono shel Olam that the humiliation he personally was enduring at the hands of the rebels he was ready to forgive, as was Aharon. It was the dishonor of the Torah that he could not forgive.

But why such a terrible, unique punishment?

One explanation is that if a rasha dies a peaceful death, the evil within him remains alive and can be transferred to coming generations. However, if he dies a strange and terrible death the evil within him is expunged.

Moshe Rabbeinu knew that Shmuel Hanavi would descend from Korach. To ensure that this great tzaddik would not be affected in any way by his forebear’s misdeeds, he prayed that Korach die a death that would cleanse his descendants from his errors.

The second Belzer Rebbe Harav Yeho-shua, zy”a, asks why it was necessary for the perpetrators to be swallowed alive in the pit.

He explains that as long as someone is alive he can still do teshuvah. Moshe Rabbeinu, in his great mercy for every Jew, was determined that the members of Korach’s rebellion too should be able to do teshuvah, and should therefore remain alive as they descended into Gehinnom.

Harav Yehoshua’s son, the third Belzer Rebbe, Harav Yissacher Dov, zy”a, referenced this thought to the Gemara (Sanhedrin 110a) that tells of the time Rabbah bar Chuna met an Arab who offered to show him where Korach’s followers were swallowed up.

The Amora accompanied the Arab to an area with two cracks in the ground from which smoke was steaming.

What he heard from the depths were the words “Moshe is true and his Torah is true.”

This, said the Belzer Rav, is proof that Korach did indeed do teshuvah.

* * *

Moshe Rabbeinu’s altruism was in sharp contrast to Korach’s wish for self-aggrandizement. Centuries later, Shmuel Hanavi would rectify his forebear Korach’s fatal error by choosing to emulate Moshe Rabbeinu.

For decades Shmuel Hanavi served Klal Yisrael with singular devotion and selflessness. Then towards the end of his life, in a devastating exhibition of ingratitude, Bnei Yisrael approached him to demand a king. Shmuel Hanavi, that faithful and selfless leader, went on to anoint Shaul as king.

Only afterwards, when it was no longer possible to alter the situation, did Shmuel Hanavi reprimand the nation. His mussar would not benefit him personally in any way; it would only help put the people on the right course.

And his dedication continues to this very day.

After the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, Shmuel Hanavi left his lofty place in Gan Eden and went to stand before Hashem to beseech Hashem for mercy for his people.

His seat is still empty, and he is still imploring for mercy for us.