Question: Please forgive me if my question is impudent; I certainly do not mean to be disrespectful. My question is this: When Korach and his cohort got swallowed up by the earth (Numbers 16:31-33), did that include babies who were not involved in the rebellion? If so, why were they punished? (I have had a similar question about the death of the first-born (Exodus 12:29-30)—as a father, it has bothered me enormously to think of children dying…)
Answer: Thank you for your question. Please do not apologize for it; the question is not disrespectful at all. On the contrary, anyone who takes Torah seriously has to deal with difficult questions and not “brush them under the rug”, as they say. I only want to add a caveat: If my answers are not satisfying, keep struggling with the issue yourself and be patient. In the course of time, you will find a better understanding than mine. Very often, it takes me years to get things straight.
I want to expand the scope of your question. Whether or not children died in the story of Korach, children were certainly killed in other places in the Torah. For instance, there is a commandment to destroy the nation of Amalek—men, women, and children (see Samuel I 15:3). The nation of Midyan was similarly destroyed, with only baby girls, and not boys, being saved (see Nachmanides on Numbers 31:6). So too, the Jews were bidden, “Don’t leave a soul alive” (Deuteronomy 20:16), with regard to the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. This is all in addition to the death of the first-born in Egypt. None of these children and babies sinned.
Furthermore, we believe that God rules the entire world and everything in it. Our health and illness are in His hands, as well as our lives and deaths. When my three-month-old daughter Shulamis died, may she rest in peace, she obviously had had no chance to sin when God took her life. I don’t think that I see a difference in terms of judging God’s actions, so to speak, whether someone dies because a person is ordered to kill him, or if that person dies because God takes away his life directly.
It could be that I have expanded the question far enough so that we can now see how to deal with it correctly. We live in an imperfect world, full of a lot of joy—but also a lot of pain and sadness. This is actually our fault and not God’s, for the world He originally gave to Man lacked all the sadness. But, that is how the world has been ever since the sin of First Man, and it will remain so until it is finally perfected in the end.
People die. Children die. They die for a great number of reasons, some having to do with their circumstances, and some having to do with God’s larger purposes in this world. Generally, we don’t know one reason from another. We have no reason to complain; even when it hurts, we know that God is always acting only for our benefit—individually and collectively. He has absolutely no other goal in this world than to bring it back to the perfection it could have had originally, to give us all the kindness we can accept. And He keeps track. Whatever we deserve and can’t get now, he will give to us at another place and time, in a different way.
All of this is true in a general sense. In the Torah, we are in the unusual position of being able to see more of what is going on. We can see some of the purposes for which these children died; whether it was part of the punishment of Egypt in general in order to redeem Israel, or as part of the necessity that the evil nation of Amalek should be completely uprooted, etc. Nevertheless, because we can see (part) of the reason for their death, we may have more of a tendency to “second-guess” God on this matter. I don’t think the children themselves were being punished; they were part of a larger whole. Yet, I also don’t think that the children were unfairly treated. Only God himself knows how long they were fated to live. Our lives anyway are a gift from God—maybe this was all the life that they were granted originally.
I want to add one thing, lest you take my words beyond what I intend. From the point of view of God, these questions may not be so difficult. Everything is His, as I’ve said. But we have to be careful not to translate that point of view into our relations with other people. In His Torah, God has commanded us to take responsibility for other people’s welfare. We are never to say, “God obviously wants him to be hungry”, “God obviously wants him to be sad.” God may have wanted him to be hungry until this point, but now He wants that person to stop being hungry because I fed him. He wants us to care about one another and to be close to one another; our knowing that He runs the world doesn’t change that.
[Editor – See here for more posts on Divine justice.]