Parashat Korach tells of the revolt led by Korach against Moshe and Aharon. The Torah is very brief in its account of Korach’s arguments, recording only the rhetorical question, “Madu’a titnas’u al kehal Hashem” – “Why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?!” (16:3). The Midrash, however, presents additional information regarding the arguments advanced by Korach in his campaign to undermine Moshe’s authority. In one such passage (Bamidbar Rabba 18:4), the Midrash comments, “Korach at that time assembled his followers and said to them [Moshe and Aharon]: You have imposed upon us a greater burden than the Egyptian bondage. We would be better off [living] under Egypt’s rule than under yours.”
According to this Midrashic passage, Korach and his followers objected to the “burden” imposed by Moshe, likely referring to the large, complex body of laws included in the Torah which Moshe taught. They charged that Moshe overburdened them with laws which he claimed were given by God, and they were “enslaved” to a greater extent than they had been in Egypt.
It is clear from Moshe’s response that Korach and his followers protested their being barred from the roles assigned to the kohanim. After all, Moshe told Korach that he should feel content with his lofty role as a Levi, and there was no reason for him to vie for the priesthood, as well (16:8-11). And, Moshe decided to settle the question by having Korach, his followers, and Aharon all bring incense offerings, a job reserved for the kohanim, after which God would demonstrably accept the offering of the individual chosen for the high priesthood. Quite clearly, then, Korach’s objective, or one of his objectives, was to lift the restrictions that barred the rest of the nation from performing the rituals assigned to the kohanim.
In light of this objective, Korach’s charge that Moshe “overburdened” the people becomes especially revealing. Korach wanted, on the one hand, more opportunities to serve God. He felt dissatisfied with his role as a Levite, and sought to perform also the rituals reserved for the kohanim. At the same time, however, Korach protested the “subjugation” that he accused Moshe of imposing upon the people. He felt Moshe was overburdening the people with laws, requirements and restrictions. Even as he sought additional duties and responsibilities, he objected to the “burden” of duties and responsibilities which he and the people already bore.
Of course, these two complaints are not at all contradictory. Korach wanted to serve God, but on his terms. He wanted to choose for himself which rituals to perform and which were an unfair and unnecessary “burden.” He ostensibly desired a closer relationship to God, one which he saw as available only to the priestly class, but he wanted to dictate the terms and conditions of this relationship.
Rashi (16:5), citing the Midrash Tanchuma, writes that Moshe said in his response to Korach and his cohorts, “The Almighty drew boundaries in His world. Are you able to turn morning to evening? If so, then you can overturn this.” Just as we are unauthorized to dictate the laws of nature, which have been established exclusively by the Creator, likewise, we cannot dictate the terms of avodat Hashem, the way God wants His nation to serve Him. The decision of what we may do, what we may not do, and what we must do is one which is made exclusively by the Almighty, and we cannot try drawing close to Him by doing what we decide He wants.