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Parshas Pinchas: What Can We Learn from the Survival of Korach’s Sons?

In Parshas Korach the Torah recounts the great rebellion against Moshe, fueled by his envious relative Korach, which ended in disastrous consequences for Korach, his family, and his co-horts. The earth opened under their feet and their dwelling places and swallowed them- man, woman and child. The fires caused by “machlokes”, or contentious dissension, are so great that even those who are otherwise blameless are nonetheless consumed along with others who may actually be more culpable than they are. Because of his venomous acrimony, Korach and his family were condemned to obliteration and oblivion. But did they all suffer the same fate? In our Parsha (26:11) the Torah tells that the Bnei Korach did not die. What are we to make of their survival? How did they extricate themselves from their doomed position? 

During this conflict Moshe Rabeinu said (Bamidbar 16:29-30) “If these men (Korach and his cohorts) die the common death of all men, and the fate of all men will be visited upon them, then Hashem has not sent me. But if Hashem will make a new creation, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them and all that is theirs, and they descend alive into the grave, you will know that these men have provoked Hashem.” Why did Moshe, who was countlessly ready to sacrifice more than just his physical life for the Jewish people; he was also prepared to relinquish his neshamah his spiritual life, for them, ask Hashem to kill Korach in such an extraordinary way? It seems as if, Heaven forbid, Moshe is asking Hashem to take revenge on his, Moshe’s, behalf in a most bizarre fashion. This would be contrary to our understanding of Moshe as the most humble of all beings and against our understanding of the Torah’s admonition against seeking vengeance. 

It is the Jewish belief that this world is only an entranceway for the World to Come (See Pirkei Avos 4:16). As such, true compassion is to facilitate others to repent, gain forgiveness, and merit everlasting life in the next World. Shlomo Hamelech writes in Koheles (7:2) “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for that is the end of every man, and the living shall lay it to his heart.” This teaches us that being confronted with death is something that can and should initiate one to a course of repentance.

The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 2:29) writes “permanent changes in nature do not happen spontaneously”. This Universe remains perpetually with the same properties with which the Creator has endowed it… none of these will ever be changed permanently, only periodically by way of some miraculous intervention, but eventually nature will revert to the course originally ordained by the Creator. Likewise, mankind will continue or revert to its nature unless people are interdicted in a most unusual fashion. Further, writes the Rambam, (see Moreh Nevuchim 3:32,) Hashem purposefully metes out reward and punishment in order to encourage people to observe the commandments. 

Now, if Korach and his allies would have died a natural death then no one else who was involved in the dispute would have done teshuva, and they would not merit a portion in the World to Come (according to R’ Akivah’s opinion see Sanhedrin 109B) which is the main world. Moshe, by asking Hashem to give them an unnatural death, was actually trying to save whoever he could from Korach’s camp, not chalilah (heaven forbid) taking revenge. The sons of Korach were only awakened to do Teshuvah after they saw the catastrophic event that brought about their father’s doom. 

Alternately, we can understand that Moshe intended to provide a means by which many lives would be spared in this world. Indeed, we learn that Korach’s sons survived the calamity because they did do teshuvah, as Chazal say (Sanhedrin 110A) that as Korach’s sons were falling into Gehinom with their father, they repented. And miraculously,a place was fortified for them above Gehinom and thus Korach’s sons were saved. And in that place, at the last possible moment, they rethought their father’s erroneous and unjustified rebellion against their selfless leader Moshe and his Torah and admitted the truth to themselves and to others. 

(The Taz Dovid HaLevi Segal (born about 1586–1667) in his sefer Divrei David brings a contradiction whether the sons of Korach actually survived or not. He cites Rashi who quotes the above mentioned gemarah in Sanhedrin. He then goes and brings the Re’em {Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi  (born about 1455, and he passed away in 1525 or 1526). He is best known for his Sefer ha-Mizrachi, a supercommentary on Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. He is also known as Re’em, the Hebrew acronym for “Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi”, ) who quoted a Medrash (See Medrash Shocher Tov 1) that the sons of Korach came up to the surface of the land, and they entered into Eretz Yisroel and were Neviim – prophets.  A very compelling proof to this is that Shmuel was a decedent of Korach’s sons, and even Rashi himself writes this in Tehillim (42:1). The Taz therefore suggests that it is possible to say that they were in Gehenom for some length of time, and afterwards they ascended back  onto the face of the Earth.”)

Moshe had realized that the Decree of Hashem to kill them all had already been sealed but he wished to save those who would repent. The Gemarah quotes Reish Lakish (Eruvin 19A) that Resha’im do not repent even at the entrance of Gehenom. Moshe wanted them all to fall into Gehenom hoping that those who were not that deeply entrenched in wickedness would repent at the doorpost of Gehenom and thus be spared. Unfortunately, only Korach’s sons were not fully evil and were salvageable.  Had they been completely wicked, then even while falling into the abyss they would not have repented. All the others, however, had already gone too far and as such were considered completely evil and they did not repent even at the doorstep of Gehenom.

Great tzadikim pondered this entire episode which could not have lasted more than a few seconds, and they made the observation that even a single brief but sincere thought of repentance can save a person. As the Gemarah (Kidushin 49B) teaches us that when a known rasha betrothed a woman based on the condition that he is a complete tzadik, we must consider that the betrothal might be valid because of the possibility that he might have momentarily reflected on repentance. So great is the power of teshuva that in can transform a great rasha into a perfect Tzaddik in one instant! 

Now we see that Moshe was not trying to hurt Korach and his henchmen out of spite. On the contrary, he was trying to save them either from eternal damnation in the world to come, or literally saving their lives in this world by praying to Hashem to provide a supernatural intervention. 


Please feel free to forward this Torah thought to anyone you feel will take pleasure in reading it. Feel free to contact me at with any questions and comments. 

Good Shabbos.

Rabbi Dovid Sochet