Korach deserved all that came upon him, but the Bible tells us a remarkable thing: Uv’nei Korach lo metu, “the children of Korach did not die” (Num. 26:11). Why did they escape death? Why is it important to tell us that they did not die?
On the first question, Rashi says that originally they joined in the revolt but then had second thoughts and withdrew before it was too late.
The second question leads us to the fact that they figure in later Jewish history. They are poets and psalmists – Samson Raphael Hirsch calls them “inspired singers of the nation” – with twelve Psalms attributed to them. They are Temple officials: musicians, gatekeepers, even bakers.
The wicked Korach’s descendants include the righteous Samuel. Indeed the Talmud points out (Gittin 57b) that there were other Biblical villains who also had good children. Haman’s descendant taught Torah in B’nei B’rak; Sisera’s taught children in Jerusalem; Sennacherib’s included the erudite pair, Sh’mayah and Avtalion, who were sages of the Mishnah.
From the story of the children of Korach we can learn that one’s ancestry can be a blessing – and it can be a curse. It is a blessing when good forebears are an inspiration. It is a curse when one can never be one’s own person. In the case of Korach we have a wicked ancestor whose children were able to rise above their taint and make the world a better place.
So why do the Ten Commandments say that God visits the sins of the fathers upon the children, suggesting that one can never cut oneself loose from a bad family tradition?
Two answers: one, the visiting of sins lasts only for three or four generations whilst the good deeds of one’s ancestors last for a thousand generations or more; two, the Ten Commandments are not insisting that a stain can never be eradicated but are warning us all to be careful today that we avoid doing things that might adversely affect tomorrow.