In the context of the final census taken of Benei Yisrael in the wilderness, the Torah in Parashat Pinchas briefly recounts the ill-fated revolt against Moshe led by Korach, and provides a new piece of information which had not been previous revealed: “The sons of Korach did not die” (26:11). Rashi, paraphrasing the Gemara (Sanhedrin 110a), writes, “They were originally part of the plan, but at the time of the fight they harbored thoughts of repentance in their hearts. Therefore, a high place in Gehinnom was set aside for them, and they resided there.” According to the Rashi, then, Korach’s sons indeed fell beneath the ground along with the other rebels, but they were given a “high place” in the underworld, rather than plunging to the depths with their father and his cohorts. It is commonly explained that Korach’s sons did not actually withdraw from their father’s revolt, but merely “harbored thoughts of repentance in their hearts,” which sufficed to secure them a place of refuge in the underworld where they could survive, but did not suffice to protect them from falling in altogether.
Rav Moshe Sternbuch, however, in Ta’am Va-da’at, takes a different approach in explaining Rashi’s comment. He posits that although Korach’s sons recognized that the uprising was wrong, they did not make any effort to influence others. They felt content with saving themselves by withdrawing from the revolt and staying to the side, rather than expending efforts to oppose the revolt. As sons of the revolt’s leader, they likely held a position of prominence which could have been used to positively influence his followers and dissuade them from participating in this campaign. Therefore, as Korach’s sons were concerned only with themselves, they were condemned to live for a period of time in isolation, symbolic of the complacent isolation in which they lived after withdrawing from the revolt.
If so, then the story of Korach’s sons reminds us of the responsibility we all bear to guide and steer those in our sphere of influence in the proper direction. Certainly, our highest priority and primary obligation must be to “harbor thoughts of repentance,” to ensure that we conduct ourselves properly and make the right choices in our lives. Beyond this initial stage, however, we must also concern ourselves with the spiritual state of Am Yisrael generally, and do what we can, each according to his or her capabilities and circumstances, to motivate and inspire whoever we can to grow and improve.