One of the fundamental principles governing Divine justice is the notion of “measure for measure” (midah kenegged midah). A constant theme in the oral tradition, this concept also gains great prominence in Kabbalah and Chassidut. Some secular or non-Jewish versions of this concept include the following: “You reap what you sow”; “What goes around comes around”; “You are what you eat”; and the Eastern concept of karma.

In the portion of Korach, wherein Korach organizes a rebellion against Moses’ leadership, the principle of “measure for measure” is evident on both conceptual and practical levels in light of the Arizal’s teaching that Korach possessed Cain’s reincarnated soul, while Moses possessed Abel’s. There are many obvious comparisons between these pairs. Just as Cain was jealous of Abel because God chose his offering, Korach was jealous of Aaron and Moses because God granted them the chief leadership positions and not him. Furthermore, after God chose Abel’s offering, He tried to comfort Cain by teaching him to fight his tendency to jealousy and depression, so that he would increase his satisfaction with his lot in life. Likewise, Moses attempted to calm Korach down by providing him with reasons to be contented with his life circumstances. Both attempts failed; Cain pursued Abel and killed him and Korach pursued his rebellion until the bitter end. The principle of “measure for measure” plays itself out when the earth, which had “opened its mouth widely” (Genesis 4:11) to cover up Cain’s crime, opens and swallows up Korach and his followers, as the verse recounts, “and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them” (Numbers 16:32).

Likewise, the very image of the earth opening its mouth in the context of Cain’s and Korach’s punishments expresses the principle of “measure for measure” as both Cain and Korach were tripped up by the words that came out of their own mouths when they opened them to speak. In recounting Cain’s murder of Abel, the Torah states the following: “Cain spoke with his brother Abel. And it happened when they were in the field that Cain rose up against his brother and killed him” (Genesis 4:8). While the text does not tell us what Cain spoke with his brother about, presumably, this conversation led to Abel’s murder. In Korach’s case Rashi explains that the opening phrase of the portion, “and Korach took” (Numbers 16:1), which lacks any direct object in the text, refers to his taking the peoples’ hearts, tricking them by cloaking his own anger and ambition in populist rhetoric aimed at enlisting their support.

Another instance of “measure for measure” is alluded to by Korach’s lineage, mentioned at the beginning of the portion: “Korach son of Izhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi.” The righteous Levi is mentioned, but not Jacob. Rashi asks why Korach’s lineage was not traced all the way back to Jacob. He answers by quoting the Midrash which states that Jacob foresaw Korach’s sin and prayed not to be mentioned in connection with it. This being the case, we might expect the righteous Levi to also be excluded from the list. However, perhaps Levi’s presence is necessary because it alludes to another instance of “measure for measure.” When Joseph found his brothers herding the flocks, Levi and Shimon plotted to kill him, but Reuben convinced them to throw him in a pit instead. Perhaps, on a symbolic level, the pit used to hold Joseph comes back to swallow up Korach, Levi’s direct descendant. Indeed, Korach’s jealousy of his first cousins (Moses and Aaron) parallels Levi’s jealousy of Joseph, so perhaps Korach’s death can be seen on some level as a “measure for measure” response to Levi’s actions.

Our discussion of “measure for measure” here highlights a number of crucial points. This principle can manifest itself immediately or at a future date. In some cases, the Divine accounting process may take many lifetimes and thousands of years to work itself out, but every thought, word, and action is ultimately accounted for and paid back measure for measure. Only God knows exactly how, when, and where, this will occur. Yet we can often see quite clearly why certain things happen to us and what the causes and effects of our actions are. Sometimes though the reasons for why things happen are not so obvious at all. When all is said and done, it is important to know that our thoughts, speech, and action effect not only ourselves, but our children and our children’s children. Though in this section we have not discussed the effect positive behavior has, the principle of “measure for measure” certainly applies to rewards meted out for positive behavior as well. This realization should give us good reason to measure our deeds carefully so that merit and goodness rain upon us and all our descendants.