Friday, June 11, 2010

Does the recent sinkhole prove the plausibility of the incident with Korach?

Summary: Only according to rationalists like Ibn Ezra. This ties into a dispute as to whether this hole in the ground was a brand new invention or something relatively commonplace.

Post: In parashat Korach, Datan and Aviram fall into a giant hole which opens up in the ground. According to Rashi's understanding of the pasuk, this is a new, novel creation:

29. If these men die as all men die and the fate of all men will be visited upon them, then the Lord has not sent me.כט. אִם כְּמוֹת כָּל הָאָדָם יְמֻתוּן אֵלֶּה וּפְקֻדַּת כָּל הָאָדָם יִפָּקֵד עֲלֵיהֶם לֹא יְ־הֹוָ־ה שְׁלָחָנִי:
the Lord has not sent me: But I did everything on my own, and he [Korah] is in the right for opposing me. - [Mid. Tanchuma Korach 8, Num. Rabbah 12]לא ה' שלחני: אלא אני עשיתי הכל מדעתי ובדין הוא חולק עלי:
30. But if the Lord creates a creation, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them and all that is theirs, and they descend alive into the grave, you will know that these men have provoked the Lord."ל. וְאִם בְּרִיאָה יִבְרָא יְ־הֹוָ־ה וּפָצְתָה הָאֲדָמָה אֶת פִּיהָ וּבָלְעָה אֹתָם וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לָהֶם וְיָרְדוּ חַיִּים שְׁאֹלָה וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי נִאֲצוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵלֶּה אֶת יְ־הֹוָ־ה:
But if… a creation: A new one.ואם בריאה: חדשה:
the Lord creates: to kill them through a death by which no man has died until now. And what is this creation? “And the earth will open its mouth and swallow them up.” Then you will know that they have provoked the Holy One, blessed is He, and I [Moses] have spoken by Divine word. Our Rabbis interpret it: If there was a mouth already created to the earth from the time of the six days of Creation, well and good, but if not, let God create [one now]. - [Mid. Tanchuma Korach, Sanh. 110a]יברא ה': להמית אותם במיתה שלא מת בה אדם עד הנה, ומה היא הבריאה, ופצתה האדמה את פיה ותבלעם, אז וידעתם כי נאצו הם את ה', ואני מפי הגבורה אמרתי. ורבותינו פירשו אם בריאה - פה לארץ מששת ימי בראשית מוטב, ואם לאו יברא ה':

Of course, Chazal leave open the possibility that this is indeed not a new creation, but Moshe is still right. A new creation, unless it already exists from the 6th day of creation -- as indeed is described in Pirkei Avot.

Regardless, בְּרִיאָה יִבְרָא indicates creation of something new, according to Rashi, and his sources. In contrast, see Ibn Ezra's take:
[טז, ל]
בריאה -
יש אומרים:

שהיא תורה על המצא מה שלא היה וכבר פירשתי שאין המלה רק מגזרת וברא אתהן וכבר נבקעו מדינות רבות וירדו הדרים בהן שאולה, והנה פירושה כטעם גזרה.

Ibn Ezra is referring us to Yechezkel 23:47:

מז  וְרָגְמוּ עֲלֵיהֶן אֶבֶן קָהָל, וּבָרֵא אוֹתְהֶן בְּחַרְבוֹתָם; בְּנֵיהֶם וּבְנוֹתֵיהֶם יַהֲרֹגוּ, וּבָתֵּיהֶן בָּאֵשׁ יִשְׂרֹפוּ.47 And the assembly shall stone them with stones, and despatch them with their swords; they shall slay their sons and their daughters, and burn up their houses with fire.

where וּבָרֵא means slashing, cutting. Indeed, Rashi on that pasuk agrees:

and slash them with their swords: That is the judgment of murderesses. [The word] וּבָרֵא is an expression of cutting, and so: “and you shall cut it down (וּבֵרֵאתוֹ) ,” of “the forest shall be yours” in the Book of Joshua (17:18).

And even gives another parallel. If so, it is an interesting usage of an otherwise arcane word, which works quite well in context.

That is one reason this interpretation recommends itself to Ibn Ezra. A second is his point that this was not the only time there was a split in the earth in some country, due to an earthquake, and people were swallowed within it. (This all ties in, as well, into discussions of aspects of Bereishit, yesh mei'ayin and yesh meiyesh.) A third reason might be a general trend to rationalize miracles, and make them work as closely with derech hateva as possible. This mouth in the earth which swallowed Datan and Aviram is no different from an earthquake or sinkhole, which can occur through natural means.

Ramban rejects this position of Ibn Ezra on the basis of the meaning of the word, but also because of the different aspect of this miracle from natural occurrence:

(ל): ואם בריאה יברא ה' - כתב ר"א: 
יש אומרים כי בריאה תורה על המצא יש מאין, וכבר נבקעו מדינות רבות וירדו הדרים בהן שאולה, אבל פירושה כטעם גזרה, מן וברא אותהן (יחזקאל כג מז). 
והנכון שתאמר על המצא דבר מאין, כי אין אצלנו בלשון הקדש מורה על זה זולתי המלה הזאת.
אבל העניין, כי בקיעת האדמה אינה בריאה מחודשת, אבל פתיחת הארץ את פיה לבלוע הוא חידוש לא נהיה מעולם. כי כאשר תבקע האדמה כמו שנעשה פעמים רבים ברעש הנקרא זלזלה תישאר פתוחה, גם ימלא הבקע מים ויעשה כאגמים. אבל שתפתח ותיסגר מיד כאדם הפותח פיו לבלוע ויסגור אותו אחרי בלעו, זה הדבר נתחדש ביום ההוא כאלו הוא נברא מאין, וזה טעם ותכס עליהם הארץ (פסוק לג). ולכך אמר הכתוב אחרי ותבקע האדמה (פסוק לא), ותפתח הארץ את פיה ותבלע אותם (פסוק לב).

ועל דעת רבותינו (סנהדרין קי א): 
בקרוב פתח גיהינום, גם הוא עניין נתחדש לשעתו:
I think it is noteworthy that Ramban first rejects Ibn Ezra based on a peshat reading of pesukim, about the covering them up; and only afterwards on the basis of the midrash that this was the opening to Gehinnom, in which case it would certainly be different.

(Shadal, meanwhile, understands it as a new creation.)

This was running through my mind as I saw the news about the recent sinkholes, and then saw various bloggers relate it to parashat Korach. For example, Avakesh posts this video, with a blogpost title of "Who Says It Can't Happen?"

And so too Shirat Devorah, about China's sudden sinkholes, related to parashat Korach.

But focusing on Avakesh, the question is whether this is meant to be inspiring. On the one hand, people might reject the miracle outright as too far-fetched, and so pointing out an identical, or close phenomenon works to increase emunah, that it is not so far-fetched. Here is a hole in the ground that opens suddenly and swallows everything. (And if indeed a sinkhole, the miracle can readily be in the timing and location, that it suddenly struck these rebels right after Moshe told them it would.) On the other hand, if we can explain the miracle by natural means, does that take away from the miraculous nature?

Chazal maintain that this was the entrance to Gehenna, and Ramban also notes something not particular to natural earthquakes and sinkholes. Certain pashtanim, perhaps due to a rationalist streak, want their miracles as extensions of, or manifestations of, natural ocurrences. Those who subscribe to the midrashic approach will see the miracles mentioned in midrash and will be more likely to dismiss any relationship to natural occurrence. Plus, non-pashtanim might be motivated by a more mystical approach.

When someone on Avodah asked whether the hole which swallowed Datan and Aviram was like a perfectly round sinkhole, someone responded, based on Malbim, that it would not, because that mouth of the earth had lips. Perhaps. I would need to see that Malbim inside. But I would note that Malbim is fairly late, and his interpretation, be it an attempt at peshat or derash, is not compulsory.

On a similar note, the New York Times recently had an article discussion manna; and article also carried by Vos Iz Neias. Some choice comments, rejecting the possibility:
1) Read the Rashi on the manna. Sorry guys, but this is not quite the same thing.
2) The "manna" in the midbar tasted like whatever a person wanted, except for 4 things (I think cucumbers, garlic and two others, I'm not sure). Whatever wasn't gathered up melted and disappeared, except for one small jar that was put away for posterity. It was an entirely miraculous food, but, there will always be those who attribute miracles as natural events somehow.
3) Very nice, but what does any of this have to do with what Hashem fed us with in the Midbor? Do these things dry up and disappear if left out or produce no waste when eaten?
4) That, plus the manna in the desert was satisfying enough for a person to live on as their daily food. You try to live on the stuff described in this article for more than a couple of days, you'd probably develop diabetes.

(Me'am Loez, on Parshas Beshalach, has about a dozen proofs that the Torah's manna isn't these insect exudations. Your points and mine are among them; I don't recall the others offhand.)
Yet many (not all) of these rejections are based on specific interpretations, and particularly midrashic interpretations. (Meanwhile, Ibn Ezra apparently tries to relate it to some real known substance in the area.) See also Rationalist Judaism about this, and how Rambam explained it as a natural phenomenon because of a distinct miraculous feature it possessed (hard, yet melting), or that is appeared continuously. In particular, I would side with the latter. Even if it is an entirely natural substance, it reflects an absolute control of nature to be able to direct, day after day, quail and manna to the entire Israelite camp. The miracle is in the timing and consistency.


Anonymous said...

I object to your liberal use of the word "plausibility" in your title. "Torah MiSiani", THE WORD of God, should provide all the plausibility you need for the Korach Incident.

joshwaxman said...

but that is the best word for describing what avakesh was attempting with the link to the video.


Anonymous said...

I agree with the first comment. Believing Jews don't look for "proof" of the validity or truth of the Torah. Anyway, it's a loosing fight. On the other hand, nothing in the world happens by accident or a coincidence. They are meant to teach us a lesson.

joshwaxman said...

but they might seek to do kiruv to convince others.

"On the other hand, nothing in the world happens by accident or a coincidence. They are meant to teach us a lesson."
that is one position. some rishonim believed otherwise.

kol tuv,

Nosson Gestetner said...

I wonder if we can call a hole in the ground a "new" creation - isn't a hole just an absence of what was there e.g. a removal of the land they were standing on?

joshwaxman said...

an interesting question.

i discussed it a bit, and brought down some sources, in this earlier post, about whether darkness can be called a creation, and whether it is merely absence of light.



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