In his commentary to Parashat Korach (16:7), Rashi cites the Midrash Tanchuma as explaining the flawed rationale that drove Korach to launch his uprising against Moshe. A great man endowed with prophetic insight, the Midrash explains, Korach foresaw the greatness destined for his progeny. Specifically, he saw Shemuel, the great prophet and leader who succeeded in turning the people’s hearts away from idolatry and laid the groundwork for the dynasty of King David. Additionally, Korach saw his descendants singing beautiful music in the Beis Ha-mikdash. Korach thus asked himself, in Rashi’s words, “Is it possible that all this greatness will arise from me in the future, and I will be silent?” He therefore decided to garner support for his effort to depose Moshe.
How might we understand Korach’s question, “…and I will be silent”? Why did the future greatness of his descendants necessitate, in his mind, bold action in the present? Why did he assume that he needed to seize the reins of leadership now in order to pave the way for his descendants’ rise to prominence?
Rav Simcha Bunim of Pashischa explained that the Midrash refers here to Korach’s quest to serve as kohen gadol. He mistakenly assumed that he needed to spiritually prepare his family for greatness by rising already then to his own position of greatness. In order for him to beget righteous descendants, he argued, it was necessary for him to lay the spiritual foundations, which he could accomplish only by performing the priestly rituals in the Mishkan. And thus he led a protest against Moshe’s reserving these rituals exclusively for Aharon and his sons.
One of the lessons that can be learned from Rav Simcha Bunim’s analysis is that we achieve greatness by working to excel in our own roles, rather than seeking to perform other people’s roles. We are all given our own individual sets of talents and skills, and placed in our own sets of circumstances in which to maximize those talents and skills. Sometimes, in our quest for excellence, we might look around to observe the roles filled by others, and then assume that these are the roles we, too, need to fill in order to feel accomplished and fully actualize our potential. The best thing Korach could have done to prepare his descendants for spiritual excellence is to perform the role assigned to him at the highest level, as opposed to trying to usurp the kehuna. Greatness is achieved not by trying to be somebody else, but by trying to be the best we can be under the current conditions and circumstances, utilizing to the fullest all the skills, resources and opportunities that God gives us.