INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
In memory of
Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner
By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley
By this stage in Sefer Bamidbar, challenges to Moshe have become commonplace, almost expected. In our parasha, however, the complaint at hand is Moshe's leadership itself. In Parashat Korach, the people's ire is focused directly at Moshe and Aharon not at their decisions, promises, and supposed failures. After several attempts to negotiate and placate the rebels, Moshe invoked a miracle to prove the authenticity of his mission:
Then Moshe said: "This is how you will know that Hashem has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea. If these men die a natural death, experiencing only what usually happens to men, then Hashem has not sent me. But if Hashem brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have treated Hashem with contempt."
Hashem immediately responded to Moshe's request:
As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, with their households and all of Korach's men and all their possessions. They went down alive into the grave, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished, and they were gone from the community.
Despite this dramatic vindication - Korach and his followers were swallowed up by the ground and Hashem clearly answered and sided with Moshe against the rebels - the argument did not end at this point. The very next morning, the Jewish people returned, still complaining. Hashem's dramatic intervention did not end the dispute, but rather became the next subject of the people's anger. Only Aharon's intervention prevented the spread of a deadly plague among the people, and the subsequent flowering of his staff brings the questioning to an end.
B. WHO WERE THE REBELS?
When we read the story of Korach, we immediately note the narrative's complexity. The Korach conflict is difficult to disentangle. How did Korach ultimately die? Why did Hashem desire to destroy all of the Jewish people? How many people opposed Moshe, and for what reasons? Clearly, several factions appear in the text, each one with their own grievance. First, there was Korach himself. The unusual length of the genealogy given in the opening verse - "Korach, son of Yitzhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi" - suggested to Rashi the reason for Korach's discontent:
My father was one of four brothers Amram was the firstborn. Of his sons, Aaron was awarded the priesthood and Moshe was given kingship. Who is worthy of receiving the next honor if not the second [brother, Yitzhar]? I, Yitzhar's son should have been made prince of the clan, but instead Moshe appointed Elizaphan, son of Uziel [the fourth and youngest brother; see Bamidbar 3:30]. Should the youngest of father's brothers be greater than I? I will dispute with him and undo whatever he does.
Korach was aggrieved that he had been passed over when leaders were appointed for the various clans. Already slighted when his father's older brother, Amram, had provided Bnei Yisrael with their two supreme leaders, Moshe and Aaron, the further rejection of being passed over for the nesiut, when his father was the second oldest brother and Uziel was the youngest, was an additional insult. He felt humiliated and he was determined to bring Moshe and Aaron down.
Frustrated ambition lay behind the involvement of two other groups as well. The Malbim explains:
The grievance [of Dathan and Abiram and On ben Peleth] lay in the fact that they belonged to the tribe of Reuven who, as the firstborn son of Jacob, was entitled to the highest offices of spiritual and political leadership. Instead, they complained, the priesthood and divine service had been given to the tribe of Levi and leadership of the tribes to Judah and Joseph.
Similarly, the 250 men contended that as "princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown," the priesthood belonged to them, and not to Aharon's descendants. Instead of conferring a hereditary title on a tribe, they asserted that individual prestige and distinction should be the defining factors when allotting honors. Ibn Ezra suggests that these 250 rebels were in fact firstborn who thought that the priesthood was their natural prerogative.
Although Reuven was the firstborn of Yaakov, the tribe was continually and systematically passed over when it came to leadership roles. For members of the other tribes and families, resentment lingered from after the sin of the Golden Calf, when Moshe took the office of the kehuna, the priesthood, and gave it to the Kohanim of the tribe of Levi. Thus, each of the three groups were motivated by envy and an apparent desire for revenge against the two men, Moshe and Aaron, who seemed to have arrogated the leadership roles to themselves, ignoring the people's rightful representatives.
Why did all this simmering resentment boil over into a dramatic conflagration at this point? The Ramban explains that as long as the Jewish people, despite their all complaints and grumblings, felt that they were moving toward their appointed destination, Korach and the other malcontents realized that there was no possibility of successfully rousing the people in revolt. Once Hashem decreed, however, that the people would not live to enter Eretz Yisrael, Korach sensed immediately that his moment of opportunity had arrived; the people were disillusioned and they had nothing to lose.
C. DEFINING MAKHLOKET
The argument between Moshe Rabbenu and his opponents has ramifications far beyond our parasha's narrative. For the Sages, this conflict became the paradigm of the wrong kind of disagreement:
In the end, every argument for the sake of heaven will be of permanent value, but every argument not for the sake of heaven will not endure. Which is an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument between Hillel and Shammai. Which is an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and his company. (Pirkei Avot 5:17)
What is it about this disagreement that distinguishes it from all the others in Tanakh? More importantly, what qualities determine that an argument is "not for the sake of heaven"? The standard of endurance cannot help here; people involved in an argument cannot jump forward in time to the future to see whether or not their disagreement endured. Almost everyone who enters a disagreement would claim that they do so out of principle, not for selfish motives. When involved in an argument in the present, how can a person assess its value? Let us look at two commentators to help ascertain what those defining qualities are.
The first commentator that we will examine is the Meiri. In his commentary to Pirkei Avot, he explains this teaching as follows:
The arguments between Hillel and Shammai: In their debates, one of them would render a decision and the other would argue against it, out of a desire to discover the truth, not out of cantankerousness or a wish to prevail over his fellow. That is why when he was right, the words of the person who disagreed endured. An argument not for the sake of heaven was that of Korach and his company, for they came to undermine Moshe, our master, may he rest in peace, and his position, out of envy and contentiousness and ambition for victory.
For the Meiri, there is a fundamental distinction between two kinds of conflict: argument for the sake of truth and argument for the sake of victory. This stands out in the text, as Moshe's repeated attempts to enter into negotiations with the rebels, Korach as well as Datan and Aviram, are rebuffed. The Midrash Tanchuma comments on the total silence of Korach throughout the narrative:
And Moshe said to Korach: Hear now, sons of Levi! Moshe uttered these words in an endeavor to appease Korach, but you do not find that Korach responded. This is because Korach was clever in his wickedness, saying, "If I answer him, I know that he is a wise man, and will outwit me in his arguments, and I will be forced to become reconciled to him. Better that I should not enter into any discussion with him."
The Malbim, on the other hand, sees a different quality in the Korach rebellion that enables us to understand why it is the prime example of an argument not for the sake of heaven:
Our Sages wished to point out that in a holy or heavenly cause, both sides are in fact united by one purpose, to further unselfish, Divine ends. However, in an argument not for the sake of heaven, for personal advancement and the like, then even those who have banded together on one side are not really united. Each govern their moves by calculations as to what they stand to gain, and would cut the others' throats if it would advance their own interests.
The Malbim points out that ultimately, the attempt by the rebels would have disintegrated. Even had they succeeded in deposing Moshe, who would have replaced him? Had Korach attempted to assume the mantle of leadership, Datan and Aviram would have risen up in arms against him. The only common ground between them was their desire to replace Moshe and Aharon. This reality, implies the Malbim, accounts for the strange wording of the mishna. When it brings an example of an argument not for the sake of heaven, it lists the two sides. In our case, however, all that is written is "Korach and his congregation." They are the only two combatants in the picture, for ultimately, they would have turned on each other.
 See last year's Introduction to Parasha to Parashat Beha'alotekha, at http://vbm-torah.org/archive/intparsha68/36-68behaal.htm, which discusses the simmering resentment throughout the Torah among the people over the replacement of the firstborn, the representatives of each family, with Shevet Levi.