Despite this Challenging Year, Still Seeking a Personal Rendezvous with God
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, President and Rosh HaYeshiva
There is a tradition to recite Psalm 47 as an introduction to the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, based on a statement in Masechet Sofrim (19:2)
— כף תקעו העמים כל אומר השנה ובראש / “and on Rosh Hashanah, Kol Ha’amim Tee-ku Kaf [the psalm composed by the the children of Korach] is recited.”
Why choose a psalm authored by the children of Korach — the family that rebelled against God and his trusted servant Moshe — as an introduction to the sounding of the shofar, the clarion call for teshuvah, our return to God? The Talmud in Megilah 14a states:
“But the children of Korach did not die” (Numbers 26:11), and with regard to them it is taught in the name of our teacher, [Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi]: A high place was set aside for them in Gehinnom, [since, the children of Korach repented in their hearts, and were consequently not propelled very far down in Gehinnom when the earth opened to swallow Korach and his followers]; and they stood on this high place.”
This statement in the Talmud indicates that the children of Korach were not the worst of the co-conspirators. Nonetheless, since they were still part of the rebellious group, our question remains: why precede the sound of the shofar with a psalm composed by such a dishonorable family?
It is fascinating to note that the authors of the midrash and Rashi, the premier Torah commentator, also amplify other dimensions of the spiritual identity of the children of Korach. The Midrash Lekach Tov (Pinchas, p. 132a) comments:
“They were the carriers of the most important vessels of the Tabernacle, as it states, ‘since theirs was the service of the [most] sacred objects, their porterage was by shoulder’ (Numbers 7:9) and they were not found with their father [when he rebelled against Moshe].
In another Midrash, Yalkut Shimoni (Psalms, Remez 753), we find:
“Rav Yudan states: The children of Korach said, Do not fear [that Korach and his followers were destroyed]; observe the miracles that were performed for us. It states, ‘And the ground opened up [to swallow Korach and his followers]’, and we, the children of Korach, were suspended in the air, as it states, ‘and the sons of Korach did not die.’” Rashi (Psalms 42:1) writes: “From this elevated perch in Gehinnom, they [the children of Korach] sang to God, and established the psalms in which they are designated as the authors. They ascended from Gehinnom and were moved with divine inspiration…”
Who are the primary personalities that we meet in the Rosh Hashanah prayer services? In the Torah readings, we encounter Sarah, Avraham, Hagar and Yitzchak. In the Haftarah, it is Channah and the “Bnei Hagolah,” the survivors of the exile living in the diaspora. And in the introduction to the shofar blasts, it is the children of Korach.
Each one of these personalities has something in common. They have all had their own “Gehinnom” — hellish experiences. Sarah and Avraham first face childlessness, only for Avraham to be commanded to sacrifice their beloved, long-awaited son, Yitzchak, as a burnt offering. Yitzchak was fated to overcome the traumatic experience of being the survivor of an attempted human sacrifice. He ascends the mountain together with his father as part of a family, but descends the mountain alone. Hagar was banished from her home, only to watch her young son nearly die in front of her very eyes. Channah, unable to conceive, is rebuffed by the religious leadership when she arrives in the Tabernacle, where she had come seeking comfort in dealing with her predicament.
The “B’nei Hagolah,” diaspora Jewry, have witnessed the devastation of their families, the destruction of their communities, and the abuse of their wives and children.
The children of Korach have lost their families and their support structures. All of the personalities in the Rosh Hashanah prayer service have been through their own personal “Gehinnom”.
Yet despite their challenges, despite the darkness and difficulty, they nonetheless connect to God. They still embrace eternal ideals. They make the decision to commit to their Jewish, monotheistic destiny and to strengthen their personal relationship with God.
Thus, there is tremendous significance to the fact that the psalm introducing the shofar blasts is one that was composed by the children of Korach: a group of people that has overcome challenge, has been to Gehinnom, and yet is still committed to “Sing, O sing to God; sing, O sing to our king (verse 7).”
We have all learned this year of life’s strange and challenging moments. We have all experienced some type of “Gehinnoms:” we have seen loved ones and friends pass away and have faced our own mortality.
The sound of the shofar creates a context for our struggle. It is a prayer unshackled by words. As the last verse in the introductory psalm poetically indicates, Rosh Hashanah is a time to acknowledge the exaltedness of the Almighty in spite of all challenges we may face, and to find the strength and comfort we need to create our personal rendezvous with God.