“Whatever Became of the Sons of Korach?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, opens with the conclusion of the well-known act of zealotry perpetrated by Pinchas, who speared Cozbi and Zimri as they defiantly committed a lewd sexual act in public.

G-d then tells Moses and Elazar, the son of Aaron, to count all the children of Israel from age twenty and above. As Moses and Aaron had done 39 years earlier, so the people were to be counted again before entering the land of Israel. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) says that the people are counted at this point to determine how many had survived the recent plague. R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) maintains that the land was now about to be apportioned according to the population of the twelve tribes, so it was necessary to know the exact tribal numbers. The Abarbanel (Spanish statesman, philosopher and Bible commentator, 1437-1508) says that the counting was conducted for military purposes in order to know for certain the number of eligible fighting men.

While counting the tribe of Reuben, mention is made of Datan and Abiram who were leaders in Korach’s rebellious assembly. The Torah retells the story of the earth swallowing Korach, Datan, Abiram, as well as the 250 men who joined them. Scripture then states in Numbers 26:11: “Oo’v’nay Korach lo may’too,” but the sons of Korach did not die.

This intriguing verse, seemingly irrelevant to the ongoing narrative, raises many questions. The verse does not say that the sons of Korach (Assir, Elkana and Aviassaf), were counted in the census. It merely states that “they did not die.” Rashi, quoting the Talmud in Megillah 14a, explains this contextual issue by declaring that Korach’s sons joined their father’s conspiracy at the very beginning, but somewhere during the process had thoughts of teshuva (repentance). Rashi, however, again citing the Talmud, does not exonerate the sons of Korach, in fact he declares that “a special place was designated for them in purgatory (gehinom) where they still dwell.”

This revealing Midrash is based on a nuance in the biblical text (Numbers 16:32) that states that the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the people, their houses and all their property. The verse does not say that they died, but rather that they were “swallowed.” Obviously, most of the rebels died, but the sons of Korach, who were swallowed along with the others, did not die.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994, the seventh and last Rebbe of the Chabad Lubavitch branch of Chassidic Judaism) cited in Likutei Sichot, edited by Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky, explains that although the sons of Korach had thoughts of repentance, they did not actually repent, and “to all outward appearances they remained rebels to the very end.” As the Torah’s practice is to hold a person accountable “midah k’neged midah,” making certain that the reward or punishment is appropriate, the sons of Korach, to all outward appearances, perished along with everyone else, “but hidden from the view in the interior of the earth, they remained alive.”

The Yalkut Sofer, cited in Iturei Torah (page 170), connects the verse in Numbers 26:11 that states, “and the sons of Korach did not die” with the last two words of the previous verse, “Va’yeeh’yoo l’nays,” they became an “example” or a “miracle,” referring to all those who were swallowed with Korach and his entourage. The Yalkut Sofer maintains that it is relatively easy for a child to acquire evil habits from one’s parents, but very difficult to imbibe good traits and behaviors. What was the sign, the miracle, that saved the lives of the sons of Korach? In the heat of the dispute, the sons of Korach had thoughts of repentance and did not join their father. Acting so profoundly against human nature is indeed a miracle.

The Yalkut Shimoni 752 underscores the quandary faced by the sons of Korach:

“While Moses came to visit Korach in order to somehow persuade him not to rebel, the sons of Korach found themselves in a dilemma, ‘If we arise for Moses, we offend our father. If we remain seated on the other hand, we transgress the mitzvah of giving honor to a Torah scholar.’ They decided to fulfill the Torah command and arose in honor of Moses even though their father was unhappy.”

It took enormous courage and inner fortitude on the part of Korach’s sons to resist joining their father, and for this they were saved. They chose to do what they felt was right despite their training, despite the overwhelming outside influences. They were indeed seekers of truth.

That is why, according to some commentators, Korach’s three children are referred to in the verse as the “Sons of Korach,” even though that appellation has negative connotations. By noting that they are the sons of Korach, the Torah is actually praising them for their bold actions. Despite being the sons of Korach, the wicked schemer against G-d and Moses, they were not drawn into their father’s rebellion.

One of the most beautiful literary legacies in all of human literature is the Book of Psalms. Most of the 150 psalms are attributed to King David. A few are ascribed to Moses and King Solomon and others. Psalm 47, however, begins with the words: “Lam’na’tzay’ach liv’nay Korach, mizmor,” For the conductor, by the sons of Korach, a song.

Not only did Korach’s children remove themselves from the rebellion, they and their descendants reached such great spiritual heights that they were able to compose magnificent psalms. Of all 150 psalms, it is psalm 47, written by the sons of Korach, that is chosen to be recited before the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashana. It reaffirms the belief that if the sons of Korach can repent, so can others. If they could resist the influence of one of the greatest propagandists of all times, then we can as well. It assures us that even though no one was closer to Korach than his sons, even though they were deeply involved in the rebellion, they were able to extricate themselves from the rebellious assembly.

Psalm 47:2 reads: “Sound the shofar with a joyous cry,” because we can overcome outside influences and beat evil at its own game. Like the sons of Korach, each of us can rise above destiny and outwit the unholy influences that try to derail us.

In Chronicles I 6:18-22, we learn that the great prophet Samuel is a descendant of the sons of Korach. How exceptional is the power of repentance!

Wishing everyone a meaningful fast, Shiva Assar B’Tammuz, Sunday, July 24, dawn to nightfall.

May you be blessed.