The central narrative in this week’s parasha tells of Korach and his following. After the complaint for meat in Parashat Behaalotcha, and the incident of the spies in Parashat Shelach, the attacks against Moshe continue in our parasha. Only this time, the attack is launched against Moshe directly, and the uprising is led by a relative of Moshe – Korach, “the son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi” – meaning, a first cousin of Moshe. Korach wins the support of Datan and Aviram, as well as On Ben Pelet, all from the tribe of Reuven. Together with two hundred and fifty leaders of the nation, this group “assembled against Moshe and Aharon and said to them: You have too much! For the entire congregation is sacred, and God is in their midst; why shall you elevate yourselves above the congregation of Hashem?” (Bamidbar 16). Rashi explains, “You have too much – you took far too much greatness for yourselves. Why shall you elevate yourselves – if you took the kingship, you should not have chosen your brother for the priesthood.”
Korach is thus a person who fights against corruption in the upper echelons, he raised the voice of opposition against political appointments motivated by nepotism or other personal interests.
Why did Korach wait until now? And how are we to understand this union of different groups that gathered around Korach? What interests did they pursue in this campaign against Moshe and Aharon?
The mefarshim explain that each party had its own personal interests at stake. Korach felt genuinely envious after the appointment of his cousin, Elitzafan Ben Uziel, as the leader of the Levite family of Kehat. Datan, Aviram and On, as mentioned, were from the tribe of Reuven, the oldest among Yaakov’s sons. Although we do not find any widespread resentment among the tribe of Reuven for its loss of the mantle of leadership, which was given to Yehuda (the tribe destined for royalty) and Levi (the servants in the Mishkan), these men were embittered over having been denied authority and power. Finally, the two hundred and fifty men were firstborns, who were to have served as the nation’s kohanim but forfeited this privilege as a result of their participation in chet ha’egel (sin of the golden calf). They now found their opportunity to “settle the scores” with Moshe and Aharon.
However, the critical question that arises from this entire story is, why did the group deserve such harsh punishment? Why did the members of the rebellion suffer a fate worse than that suffered by the perpetrators of chet ha’egel or chet ha’meraglim (the sin of the scouts)? And why suddenly in this instance does Moshe not appeal for compassion on their behalf? The mefarshim explain that the sins of the golden calf and the scouts involved specific wrongs; they touched upon a particular point within the fabric of Am Yisrael’s belief system. They did not, however, undermine the basic faith in God or His Torah, nor did they question Moshe’s status as God’s messenger who is sent at His behest to convey His laws. Here, however, Korach challenges the very basis upon which the Torah is founded – the belief in its divine origin and Moshe’s divinely-ordained role as messenger.
Throughout the parasha, Moshe tries to bring Korach and his following back to the correct path. This did not work with Korach, because Korach did not respond at all, thus forcing Moshe to abandon hopes of reconciliation. But when it came to Datan and Aviram, Moshe even goes to their tent, foregoing his personal honour and stature. Despite the fact that he was obviously correct and all the claims against him were false and groundless, he nevertheless went to them to initiate a process of peaceful reconciliation, so as to avoid ongoing dissent.
The true question this story addresses is not, “How should a politician act?” but rather “How should a person act?” We receive a most enlightening and inspirational response to this question from Moshe Rabbenu, who goes to great lengths to try to resolve the controversy that erupts in this parasha.