“And the sons of Eliav were Datan and Aviram. These are the same Datan and Aviram that were leaders of the congregation and that strove with Moshe and Aharon among the congregation of Korach, in their strife against Hashem.” Sefer BeMidbar 26:9
In our parasha, Hashem directs Moshe and Elazar to take a census of the nation. The Torah recounts the details of this census. In discussing the Shevet of Reuven, the Torah tells us that Phalu that son of Reuven had one son – Eliav. Eliav, in turn had three sons –Nemuel, Datan and Aviram. The Torah then tells us the Datan and Aviram were involved in Korach’s conflict with Moshe and Aharon. They were punished for this rebellion. The earth opened and swallowed Datan, Aviram and Korach. The Torah then adds that Korach’s children were not killed in this punishment.
It is interesting that the Torah seems to assign a prominent leadership role to Datan and Aviram in this rebellion. This does not seem to accord with Rashi’s opinion. Rashi implies that Korach was the true leader of the rebellion and he influenced Datan and Aviram to join his insurgency. Rashi’s contention is supported by the opening of Parshat Korach that describes Korach as the ringleader of the rebellion.
However, Gershonides rejects Rashi’s position based upon the passages in our parasha that seem to attribute the leadership role in the rebellions to Datan and Aviram. Gershonides points to another element of our parasha’s account of the rebellion that seems to support his position.
A brief introduction is needed in order to understand Gershonides’ position. As we have noted, the account in our parasha ends by telling us that Korach was killed by Hashem for his actions but his children were spared. The earth opened and swallowed Korach. It is likely that Korach and his children were situated in proximity of each other. But nonetheless, the children were not swallowed. Rashi is bothered by a problem. The Torah tells us that the children to Korach were spared. This implies that we would presume that they died like their father. The Torah is compelled to correct us and reveal that our presumption is wrong. Korach was killed but his children were spared. Why would we presume that Korach’s children should have been punished?
Rashi explains that Korach’s children were deeply involved in the rebellion. Korach’s children were among the first to join him. In the formative stage of the rebellion, they offered their father support and advice. However, they subsequently recognized the impact of their actions and reconsidered. They repented their mistake and were spared from death. According to Rashi, the apparent intention of the passage is that although they too had been deeply involved in the rebellion, Korach’s children were saved by their repentance. In other words, the pasuk intends to demonstrate the efficacy of teshuva – repentance.
Gershonides points out that Rashi does offer an explanation for the Torah’s statement that the children of Korach did not die. But there is another problem that Rashi’s interpretation does not address. This section of the parasha is describing the census taken by Moshe and Elazar. Specifically, it is providing details regarding the population of Shevet Reuven. Korach was a Leyve. We can understand that he is mentioned as an associate of Datan and Aviram. The Torah is explaining why Datan and Aviram died and tells us that they were involved in the rebellion of Korach. But this is an odd juncture to mention that the sons of Korach were spared. Why mention this point in the midst of an account of the census of Shevet Reuven?
Based on this consideration, Gershonides suggests that the simple message of the passages suggest and alternative to Rashi’s interpretation. Gershonides begins by emphasizing that these passages are an account of the fate of Datan, Aviram, and their children. Korach is only mentioned in passing to explain the reason for the death of Datan, Aviram, and their children. The Torah tells us that the children of Korach did not die. The apparent purpose of this comment – given the context – is to establish a contrast. Datan and Aviram’s role in the rebellion was so substantial that their punishment extended to their children. Not only were Datan and Aviram punished, their children were also killed. In contrast, Korach’s role was apparently less significant. So, although Korach was killed, his children were spared. This interpretation supports Gershonides’ contention that Datan and Aviram were the instigators of the rebellion. Korach played a lesser, supporting role.
Before proceeding, let is summarize the positions of Rashi and Gershonides. Rashi maintains that Korach was the initial instigator and leader of the rebellion. His children were among his initial followers and advisors. However, they repented and were spared death. Gershonides argues that Datan and Aviram were the initial instigators. Korach was a supporter of their rebellion. As a result of their role in the rebellion, Datan and Aviram were punished with death and this punishment extended to their children. Korach played a lesser role. Therefore, although he was killed, his children were spared.
Of course, there is one obvious problem with Gershonides’ position. The Torah in Parshat Korach describes the rebellion in detail. There, the Torah mentions Korach before mentioning Datan and Aviram. The obvious implication is that Korach was the leader and Datan and Aviram were junior partners.
Gershonides does not ignore this problem. He explains that Korach is given prominence in this initial account because of his greater stature – he was a more important person.
This is a difficult statement to understand. Why does Korach’s greater stature dictate that he should be given prominence in the initial account? It seems that Gershonides maintains that although Datan and Aviram were the initial instigators, the rebellion would not have gained its tremendous momentum and popular support without the involvement of a leader of stature. Korach’s participation lent credibility to the rebellion. As a result of his public support and leadership, the rebellion took hold among the people.
We can now understand the contrast between the two accounts of the rebellion. In the initial account – in Parshat Korach, the Torah’s objective is to recount the incident of the rebellion and its impact on Bnai Yisrael. From the perspective of this impact, it is irrelevant who the initial instigator was. Korach’s involvement in a leadership role was the crucial factor in converting a personal grievance into a popular cause. Therefore, in discussing the rebellion from the perspective of the impact on Bnai Yisrael, Korach is given prominence.
In contrast, the objective of the Torah in our parasha is not to recount the rebellion and its impact on the nation. Here, the intention is to explain the fate of Datan and Aviram. The Torah is telling us why they and their children died. In this context, it is important for the Torah to note that Datan and Aviram were the instigators. It is this role that explains their deaths and the deaths of their children.
Let us contrast the position of Rashi with that of Gershonides. According to Rashi, there is little distinction between leader and follower. Datan and Aviram were killed with their children. Korach and his children were also destined to die. However, Korach’s children were spared because they repented. Gershonides disagrees. He argues that the responsibility of the instigator is greater than that of the follower – even a prominent, key follower. Therefore, Datan and Aviram’s children were killed but Korach’s were spared.
Perhaps, it is possible to extend our understanding of this debate between Gershonides and Rashi one step further. Gershonides argues that Datan and Aviram were the instigators. Korach – because of a flaw in his personality – was drawn into their insurgency. He would not have initiated this rebellion. But once underway, he became involved and assumed a leadership role. It seems that Gershonides maintains that the subsequent punishment corresponded with the internal wickedness of the parties involved. Datan and Aviram were the self-motivated in their involvement. They were more corrupt than Korach. Korach was drawn into an insurgency he would not have initiated. His wickedness was les than that of Datan and Aviram. As a result his punishment – although severe – was less that that of Datan and Aviram.
Rashi maintains that the punishment does not correspond to the internal wickedness of the parties. He maintains that Korach was the leader and Datan and Aviram were his followers. Nonetheless, they all deserved the same fate. Korach’s children were only spared because of their repentance. It seems that according to Rashi, there is little or no distinction between leader and follower. The punishment corresponds with the outcome. All three of these individuals openly confronted and challenged Moshe’s authority. Irregardless of their roles as leader and followers, they all engaged in identical behavior towards Moshe. This behavior dictated the punishment. All were condemned to a death that included not only themselves but also their children.
 Rashi Sefer BeMidbar 16:1  Rashi Sefer BeMidbar 26:11  Gershonides, Sefer BeMidbar, p 143.  Sefer BeMidbar 16:1.  Gershonides Sefer BeMidbar p 143.