"The sons of Eliav: Nemuel, Dathan, and Aviram. These are Dathan and Aviram who were summoned by the congregation who incited rebellion against Moses and Aaron in the assembly of Korach, when they incited rebellion against G‑d. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them with Korach when that assembly died, when the fire devoured the two hundred fifty men, and they became a sign. But the sons of Korach did not die." (Num. 26:9-11)

[The sons of Korach] helped plot the rebellion, but during the rebellion they entertained thoughts of repentance. Therefore, a perch was fortified for them in Purgatory and they dwelt there. (Rashi, quoting Megilla 14a; Sanhedrin 110a; Tanchuma, Korach 11; Bamidbar Rabba 18:20)

Thus, when the Torah describes the punishment of Korach and his rebels, it only says that they were all "swallowed up", not that they all died. "The earth opened up its mouth and swallowed them, their houses, all of Korach's people, and all the property." (Num. 16:32) Most of them, indeed, did die, but the sons of Korach, although swallowed up with the rest, did not. Because they entertained thoughts of repentance, they did not perish…

They were swallowed up because they participated in and even helped plot the rebellion. But because they entertained thoughts of repentance, they did not perish along with everyone else. However, they only thought about repentance and did not actually repent; in fact, to all outward appearances, they remained rebels to the very end. Therefore, their punishment fit their offense: to all outward appearances, they perished along with everyone else, but hidden from view in the interior of the earth, they remained alive.

Thus, the Torah continues its description of the rebels' punishment by saying that "they and all they possessed descended alive into the pit, and the earth covered them up so that they were lost from amidst the congregation" (Ibid. 16:33). The seemingly superfluous phrase "so that they were lost from amidst the congregation" indicates that the point of their punishment was that they be removed from the congregation; they lost their merit to be part of the Jewish people. As we said, the majority perished, but since the sons of Korach entertained thoughts of repentance, they were given a second chance. They were allowed to become part of then next "congregation" a generation later, after the generation of the Exodus had died off. This shows us the tremendous power of repentance…

Thus, some thirty-eight years after they were swallowed up, they emerged from the earth and rejoined the Jewish people. This is why the fact that they did not die is recorded here and not as part of the Korach story: only now, many years later, did it become known that "the sons of Korach did not die".

The reason why this fact about the sons of Korach is stated after the description of the rebellion that accompanies the lineage of Dathan and Aviram and not in the lineage of Korach himself (ibid. 26:58) is in order to explain why they were punished at all, i.e. because of the part they played in plotting the rebellion. In other words, the sons of Korach played a key role in fomenting the rebellion of Korach, and to all outward appearances were full participants in it. But because they thought about repenting - their sense of regret was not strong enough to impel them to repent publicly - they were spared the full punishment and allowed to resume their full lives in the community. We are taught that among their descendants were the prophet Samuel (Chronicles I 6:18-22), Levites who officiated at the Temple (ibid. 25:5; see Rashi on Numbers 16:7, quoting Tanchuma, Korach 5) and that their poetry was included in the Book of Psalms. (Bava Batra 15a)

This shows us the tremendous power of repentance.

We are taught that "when the Israel repents they will be immediately redeemed" (Mishna Torah, Teshuva 7:5). Surely, nowadays, after all the Torah that has been learned and the mitzvot that have been performed in self-sacrifice throughout our protracted exile, even if we just think about repenting it should be enough to bring about our promised Redemption.

Copyright 2001 Chabad of California / http://www.LAchumash.org