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Hotter than Hell

My father (z"l) used to say, "It's hotter than the hinges of Hades out there," which is true today, and the impetus to write about Hell.

Well, not Hell exactly, but the Jewish equivalent, Gehinnom. And the reason is not just nostalgia for my dad on this scorcher, but the uncanny coincidence between our weather and the Torah portion.

Whether you are reading Parashat Korah or Parashat Pinchas this week, we deal with Korah's revolt against Moses (I can never talk about this without seeing Edward G. Robinson portraying Dathan in the Cecil B. DeMille version of The Ten Commandments). Korah, of course, made it sound as though he proposed an honest critique of Moses, charging Moses with arrogating all power to himself to enhance his authority and ego, when the opposite was the case. Korah's deceptive-politician character, knowingly deceiving by purposefully misleading with plausible untruths, distorts to his own advantage. But fortuitously, as can only happen biblically, the earth opens and swallows Korah and his minions (no, not diminutive cartoon characters). That is the end of Korah, or so we think. But like in any good horror film, "not so fast" we say to the assumption of the villain's demise.

In the next parashah, Pinchas, we read in Numbers 26:11, "The sons of Korah, however, did not die." Did not die? What does that mean? They were swallowed up for their insurrection! Fortunately, the Rabbis explain, "It's taught, 'a place was set aside for them in Gehinnom and they lived there and recited a shirah.'"

Huh? Fortunately, Torah Temimah explains, "The reason they were saved is that they thought about repentance (teshuvah) and they said a shirah (psalm)." And what shirah did they recite? Well, this solves another textual problem. Why does Psalm 88 open with the attribution, "A song (shirah). A psalm of the Korahites." We can imagine that it seems strange that the psalms would contain a prayer from the rebels against Moses. But here we have the answer. They repented at the last moment, and Psalms provides their words.

Here's the point: (read the psalm yourself: Although Judaism condemns certain grievous sins, there is always a pathway to sincere repentance. But it's gut wrenching. Sanhedrin teaches that at the last moment, the sons of Korah realized their error and sincerely repented,

O Lord, God of my deliverance,

When I cry out in the night before You,

Let my prayer reach You;

Incline Your ear to my cry.

For I am sated with misfortune;

I am at the brink of Sheol.

I am numbered with those who go down to the Pit;

I am a helpless man

Abandoned among the dead...

In their desperation, Korah's sons cry out, much as we might, understanding their error, and in complete remorse. Their abject repentance models for us how we might avoid the heat of Gehinnom, the Jewish version of Hell, searching within for the right path, and finding it, completely changing our ways and begging forgiveness.

This is not simply a theological proposition. It is also a plan to avoid Hell on earth, with the suffering of our conscience. Remorse, refinement of character, and change are possible. You never know when you'll have that breakthrough, and give up on the rebellious selfishness to reach a higher, more integrated and happier you.

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