The popular use of ancestry websites speaks to our curiosity about where we come from and the history of our families. Some of us want genetic information for medical reasons. Others want a connection to the past: What did our ancestors do for a living? Where did they live? Is there anything in our lives that resembles those who came before us? Placing ourselves as a link in a chain of ancestors can both satisfy curiosities and add meaning to our lives. It may also remind us that we are a link in connecting the chain to the future.
But what happens when we learn an ancestor did something terrible? This week’s Torah portion assures us that the sins of our family’s past do not require us to follow their path.
In our Torah portions we often gloss over the genealogies. It can be more enticing to read juicy narratives. However, just as names and bare-bones information in family trees sometimes reveal bigger facts about our ancestors, the genealogies in Torah also offer hidden gems to understand lessons of our tradition. Embedded in the genealogy of this week’s Torah portion are four little words that have rich application for our lives today.
In Parashat Pinchas we learn “the sons of Korach did not die,” uv’nei Korach lo meitu (Numbers 26:11). To understand the significance of these words, we have to go back a few chapters.
In Parashat Korach, a Levite named Korach led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. In response to Korach’s unjust complaints against the leaders, the ground opened up and swallowed him, his household, and his followers (Numbers 16:32). The Korach text itself is challenging, but in this week’s Torah portion we have an additional problem: If Korach’s household was swallowed up, then how did his sons survive?
There are at least three possibilities.
- Perhaps only those who participated in the senseless rebellion were killed, and maybe Korach’s sons did not participate. This would teach us that we ought not assume guilt by association. Korach’s sons may be an inspiration for children who overcome the significant hardships created by parents who unjustly and unproductively rebel against society.
- Perhaps Korach’s sons did participate, but they engaged in t’shuvah and changed their ways. When we look at the description in Korach, we read the people were brought down to Sheol alive (Numbers 16:33). There is room in the gaps in the narrative to create a midrash to say that they repented while there and were restored to life in the community. This would teach us the power of repentance. Even when we fall to the depths of darkness we can raise ourselves up through assessment of our transgressions, apologies, restitution, and a commitment to change our ways.
- Perhaps Korach’s sons were unrepentant participants in the meaningless rebellion yet survived. One interpretation is that “they carried on their father’s quarrelsome ways, so that in every generation there are some people who seek to cause divisiveness in the community.” 1 This would teach us that there are some behaviors coded into our DNA.
All three of these possibilities are exhibited in pursuit of a religious life today.
First, we must check ourselves from making assumptions by association. On the one hand, we know that we are influenced by the people around us. On the other hand, the way to know a person’s character is to get to know the person. We serve society well when we refrain from categorizing all of a group as bad because of the sins of a few. Do not assume Korach’s sons were bad just because their father and his friends were punished for their ways.
Second, whatever our errors, Judaism teaches that t’shuvah can redeem us. The descendants of Korach are credited as singers of Psalms 42-49. These moving verses recognize the human conditions of feeling lost, forgotten, and downcast. They respond with encouragement to “have hope in God; I will yet praise God, my ever-present help, my God” (Psalm 42:12). T’shuvah is an act of faith, that with honesty, tenacity, and a relationship with God, we can repair our ways.
Finally, what if poor choices and pointless rebellion are coded into our DNA? The great 12th-century philosopher, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon commonly known as Maimonides, might say, “so what?” He explains in his Mishneh Torah, “Every human being is characterized by numerous moral dispositions which differ from each other and are exceedingly divergent… Between any moral disposition and its extreme opposite, there are intermediate disposition more or less removed from each other… If a man finds that his nature tends or is disposed to one of these extremes… he should turn back and improve, so as to walk in the way of good people, which is the right way.” 2 In other words: just because we are inclined towards divisiveness or rebellion does not mean we must act according to our inclination. While this may take a tremendous amount of practice, intention, support, and prayer, it is a message of hope for our moral development as human beings.
1. Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, (NY: Rabbinical Assembly, 2001) p. 921
2. “Laws Relating to Moral Dispositions and Ethical Conduct,” Isadore Twersky, ed., A Maimonides Reader, (Springfield, NJ: Behrman House, 1972), pp. 51-52
Rabbi Vered L. Harris, RJE is the spiritual leader of Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City, OK. She appreciates how our ancient texts continue to speak to our modern experiences.
In her d’var Torah on Parashat Pinchas, Rabbi Vered L. Harris explores the comment that the sons of Korach did not die following the rebellion led by their father and what it says about our relationships with our ancestors. We often uncover details about our ancestors’ pasts that impact our lives today. Often, we glorify the venerable narratives and ignore the troubling ones. My own great-grandfather was a men’s clothier around the turn of the 20th century and I extol how he used his prosperity to support others. Rarely have I explored what role he played in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side.
Judaism does not demand perfection. When the Israelites sin by constructing the Golden Calf and Moses breaks the first set of the Ten Commandments tablets, it does not end our relationship with God. Rather, we get a second set and a formula for starting over.
Out of that narrative, we acquire the formula of the Thirteen Attributes of God that help to absolve us of wrongdoing. “Any time that Israel sins, let them perform before Me this procedure and I shall forgive them” (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 17b). Our prayer book shows the Thirteen Attributes as, “Adonai, Adonai, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon” (Mishkan T’filah, [NY: CCAR, 2007], p. 496). Following the Talmudic instruction, we recite the Thirteen Attributes throughout the High Holidays and on the Festivals.
In the source text for the Attributes, we see that God acts by, “extending kindness to the thousandth generation… but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:7). It may seem harsh for God to hold grandchildren and great-grandchildren accountable for their ancestors’ mistakes; yet, we see that God is 250 times more forgiving than harsh, paying kindness forward a thousand generations. We are called to be like God, to be merciful with ourselves and others.
Rabbi Jared H. Saks is the spiritual leader at Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland, Maine.
Pinchas, Numbers 25:10−30:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,194−1,215; Revised Edition, pp. 1,072−1,094
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 961–968
First Haftarah of Affliction, Jeremiah 1:1−2:3
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,278−1,281; Revised Edition, pp. 1,113–1,115