When Heaven and Hell meet (Shlach)
How well I have learned that there is no fence to sit on between heaven and hell. There is a deep, wide gulf, a chasm, and in that chasm is no place for any man. -Johnny Cash
After the sin of the spies and the devastating punishment of forced wandering in the desert for forty years, Korach leads a rebellion against Moses. Korach seeks the priesthood, for himself and his followers, though that honor, of being a Kohen, had already been assigned by God to Aaron and his descendants.
The rebellion suffers a catastrophic and fatal failure when at Moses’ behest, God causes the ground to open and swallow Korach’s followers “alive into Sheol (hell).”
The Berdichever addresses the question as to why the members of Korach’s rebellion should have received such a particular and unusual punishment of going “alive into hell.” Why not just kill them as God had done and would do for multiple other infractions and rebellions? Why have them descend while they are alive to the realm of death?
He explains that it had to do with the complex nature of their sin. On one hand, Korach’s crew sought the priesthood. They wanted the privilege of serving God, of being the intermediaries in dealing with the ritual and spiritual needs of the nation of Israel. It is an honorable role and the fact that they wanted it indicated their desire to become more connected to God, to the source of life. On the other hand, that role had already been given to Aaron and his sons by God’s direct decree. To covet and seek that role was to go against God’s express desire, to detach themselves from God, to seek death.
Hence the reason why Korach and company went “alive to hell.” They sought to do a Mitzva via a sin. They sought to get closer to God, but in the same act, to separate themselves from God. They sought the source of life and the source of death. Therefore, their confused desires led to the unusual but reflective punishment of being both dead and alive, of being alive in the realm of death.
May we always have the clarity and the ability to distinguish between the sources of life and the sources of death; and choose life.
To the memory of Rabbi Aaron Tirschwell, z”l. May the family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.