Korach: Despair in the Desert

The Israelites in the desert wanted to enter Israel. How will any Jew who decides, in this generation, to remain in exile answer the question: Were you sincere and honest all those dozens of times every day that you prayed to return to Zion?

Daniel Pinner,

Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner
INN:DP

The Talmudic sage Rabba taught (Shabbat 31a) that when a Jew dies and stands in the place of eternal judgment, he is asked six questions:

Were you honest in business and trade? Did you set fixed times to study Torah? Did you beget children? Did you look forward to the Redemption? Did you use your wisdom to fathom the intricacies of Torah? Did you use one subject to understand another?

Elsewhere, the Talmud (Yoma 35b) gives examples of excuses that Jews give for having neglected Torah: I was so poor that I never had time or effort for Torah; I was so wealthy that my whole time was devoted to my business; I was extremely sensual and passionate, and my passions distracted me.

To each of these there is a response: Were you then poorer than Hillel? Were you wealthier than Rabbi Elazar ben Harsom? Were you more beautiful, more sensually passionate, than Joseph?

We all have our excuses for neglecting Torah, and objectively it is true that we all face our own challenges. But the Talmud teaches us that no matter what your particular weakness may be, others who came before us, greater than us by far, faced the same obstacles, the same lusts, the same temptations – yet overcame them to become among the greatest, the most learned and most devout Jews who ever lived.

Speaking to Jews who still live in exile and broaching the subject of aliyah, it is commonplace to hear similar responses from many people. Why do we need to make aliyah? What do we have in Israel that we lack here?

On the face of it, it is very difficult to refute those questions. After all, Jewish communities in London, New York, Paris, and other parts of the world have no shortage of synagogues, kosher delis, kosher butchers, kosher restaurants, Jewish bookshops, Jewish kindergartens, Jewish day schools, yeshivot, and all the other infrastructure that any Jewish community needs.

Many Jewish communities have their own eruv, making it permissible to carry in public on Shabbat, to push strollers, and so on. What more can a religious Jew ask for?

What more?!

The Land of Israel, that’s what!

In the Jew’s daily life, the single most recurrent theme in our prayers is the Return to Zion. In the Blessings before the Shema and the Blessings after the Shema (morning and night), a dozen times in the thrice-daily Amidah (silent prayer said morning, afternoon, and night), in the Grace after Meals, in every celebration (wedding, circumcision, and so on) – maybe forty times a day the Jew prays in different words for the Return to Zion.

The Jew cannot eat a sandwich or a slice of cake without saying the Blessing which includes the prayer for the Return to Zion. It would be difficult to find two pages in succession in the Siddur (the Prayer Book) which do not include somewhere a prayer for the Return to Zion. The two most emotionally and spiritually charged nights of the year, the Seder Night and the conclusion of Yom Kippur, end with the crescendo: Le-shana ha-ba’ah biYerushlayim ha-b’nuyah! – Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem!

If there was ever a generation which could have been justified in saying: What will we have in Israel that we don’t have here? – that was the generation of the Sinai Desert. They were fed Manna from Heaven, they had a sheltered life in the Sinai Desert, they learnt Torah directly from Moshe, they were protected from the scorching desert sun by the Clouds of Glory by day, and their nights were illumined by the Pillar of Fire.

And the generation which had grown up under Pharaoh’s whips were delighted simply not to be slaves.

National independence? The Land of Israel? Aliyah? – Yes, inspiring ideals. But for them, simply to be free to live as good Jews in the desert without their skin being cut by those cruel whips must have been a veritable paradise.

And then, last Shabbat in Parashat Shelach Lecha, came the sin of the spies and its aftermath. How the nation wept when they were told that they would never enter the good Land that God had decreed for them!

This week in Parashat Korach we encounter two rebellions against Moshe. The first is Korach’s, the second is Dathan’s and Abiram’s. These two rebellions were born of the despair of a nation which had been condemned never to enter the Land of Israel.

But what was their despair? They had everything and more that any Jew in Golders Green or Hendon, Williamsburg or Crown Heights, can aspire for. Yet they were plunged into such gloom by that decree that these demagogues could, with wild success, latch onto their disappointment.

If the poorest of Jews who neglected Torah because of their poverty will be challenged: Were you then poorer than Hillel? And if the wealthiest of Jews who neglected Torah because of their wealth will be challenged: Were you then wealthier than Rabbi Elazar ben Harsom? And if the most sensually passionate of Jews who neglected Torah because of their sensual passion will be challenged: Were you then more sensually passionate than Joseph? –

Maybe the affluent and religiously comfortable Jewish communities in exile today will likewise be challenged: Were you then spiritually better off in Britain, or Canada, or the USA, than your ancestors were in the Sinai Desert?

Did you have God’s Clouds of Glory by Day? Or His Pillar of Fire by night? For sure, you had your kosher supermarkets and pizzerias and falafel joints – but did you have Manna? Could your Jewish day schools and Yeshivot compete with Moshe’s teaching?

If the generation which had all that, and which ostensibly should have been delighted simply to be free of Pharaoh’s whips, was plunged into such despair at being deprived of coming to the Land of Israel, so much so that Korach and Dathan and Abiram could play on those emotions so devastatingly successfully – how will any Jew who decides, in this generation, to remain in exile answer the question:

Were you sincere and honest all those dozens of times every day that you prayed to return to Zion?



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