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A punishment reminiscent of creation

This week Moshe Benovitz, Professor of Talmud, Jewish Law at the Schechter Institutes of Jewish Studies, discusses Parashat Korach. Prof. Benovitz questions Moshe’s word choice and invokes the imagery of creation in the manner that he does. Read the full article to see his answer.

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In this week’s parashah, Korah, the rebels who rebelled against Moses are swallowed up alive by the earth. Before this happens, Moses presents this punishment as a test of his leadership, and states as follows:

And Moses said, “This is how you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these works, and it has not been of my own accord: If these men die the common death of all people, and they experience the fate of all people, the LORD has not sent me.  But if the LORD creates a beriah, a creation, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that they have, and they go down alive into the underworld, then you shall understand that these men have provoked the LORD.” (Numbers 16:28-30)

Why does Moses refer to the unique fate of the rebels as “a creation” that God “creates”? The opening of the earth’s mouth is certainly miraculous, but the word “creation”, beriah, seems out of place here. Even if we assume that this was the first earthquake or quicksand experience in history, the idea that this form of death is created on the spot by God, just as he created the world in six days at the beginning of history, is puzzling, to say the least. When Moses similarly threatens the Egyptians with the plagues of hail and locusts, he mentions the fact that these will be unprecedented examples of these phenomena, but he does not use the word “creation”. The death of the firstborn in Egypt or the drowning of the Egyptian charioteers in the red sea is also an unusual, miraculous death presumably ordained by God for that purpose, but it is not referred to as creation. Why then is the opening of the earth’s mouth referred to as “creation”?

There is no question that Moses means to evoke the creation of the world when he describes God’s interference in nature at this point in history. The unique death of these men is contrasted with “dying the common death of all people” and “experiencing the fate of all people”. This is a completely new form of death, and its occurrence, particularly after Moses predicted it would happen, is a sign that God is behind Moses’s mission. Nonetheless, the evocation of creation, in this case, is unusual.

My intuitive answer is that the opening of the earth’s mouth is termed “creation” because for the first time since God created the earth in Genesis he reaches into the earth and shapes it. Genesis describes God taking the unformed and void earth and shaping it into the habitable world as we know it, while Numbers 16, our passage, describes the opposite: God takes a small plot of the crust of the earth which he created in Genesis and restores it to uninhabitable chaos.

We tend to assume that a transcendent God does all this from above: he is somewhere above the earth and remote from it when he voices the command that the earth form itself into habitable territory in Genesis, and he is presumably in the same position when he commands the earth to open its mouth and reveal the chaos underground in our passage. But in a striking statement in the Talmud tractate Hagigah (12b), the second-century sage Rabbi Yose indicates that God’s domain is actually underneath the earth, supporting it, not above it or remote from it:

It is taught in a baraita: Rabbi Yose says: Woe to them, human creatures, who see and know not what they see; who stand and know not upon what they stand. Upon what does the earth stand? Upon pillars… These pillars are positioned upon water… These waters stand upon mountains… The mountains are upon the wind… The wind is upon a storm… The storm hangs upon the arm of the Holy One, Blessed be He, as it is stated in Deuteronomy 33:27: “And underneath are the everlasting arms”. This indicates that the entire world rests upon the arms of the Holy One, Blessed be He.

According to his passage, the surface of the earth is stretched over pillars, which stand on water, which stands on mountains, which stand on wind, which stands on a storm, which stands on God’s arms. This description of God’s imminence, rather than his transcendence, can explain why the shaping of the earth and the opening of its mouth in this week’s parashah are uniquely termed “creation”. God’s arm is underneath the earth. He built the earth upon his own arm with a series of support systems, the earth’s crust being the final layer. To open the earth’s mouth and swallow up the rebels he reaches up into the earth’s surface and cracks it open.

What does all this mean to us? I think Rabbi Yose’s unique cosmology is designed to tell us that God is right here with us, below the surface of the earth. He supports us at every moment. He is such an integral part of the earth that when he decides to withdraw his support and let the rebels fall to their fate he must create a whole new creation; he has to reach in and reshape the earth. But this is a very rare and unique occurrence. His constant presence beneath us is a support, enabling us to enjoy the fate of all people, the cycle of life and death common to all people. Korah’s rebels are the exception that proves the rule.

Shavua Tov from Schechter

**Beginning immediately after Pesach and until August, Parashat Hashavua in the Diaspora is one week ‘behind’ the Parasha in Israel. Shavua Tov@Schechter will follow the Diaspora schedule.

Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.

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