We read this week of Korach and his followers’ uprising against Moses. Famously, God punishes them by causing the ground to open up and swallow them alive.
The Talmud regards Korach and his people as some of the worst people in history. Rabbi Akiva, of “love your neighbour as yourself” fame, declared Korach and his followers to be among the few who have no afterlife at all. Yet every Monday, our Psalm of the day (Ps 48) begins with “A song, a psalm by the children of Korach,” indicating that his children were good. Indeed the Torah itself attests to this: “The children of Korach didn’t die” (Num 26:11).
Tradition teaches that Korach’s sons were, in fact, initially part of his plan, but subsequently felt regret and repented before it was too late. One tradition claims that the prophet Samuel descended from them.
Jewish law considers it cruel and unlawful to mention the sordid past of a person or their ancestors, in seeming contradiction to how the Psalms still openly identifies them as Korach’s sons. Perhaps this reflects their own desire to be known as such: they took pride in this identity, they didn’t feel any shame from it. Perhaps it reflects a lofty ideal that we and our society need to work towards – one in which each and every person is judged solely by their own merits at that point in time, unsullied by the actions of their forebears or their past choices.