Parashat Korach begins with the challenge mounted by Korach and his followers against Moshe, demanding the privileges of the priesthood, which were reserved for Aharon and his descendants. Moshe responded by proposing a “contest” of sorts, whereby Aharon and Korach’s group would all offer incense, and the one whose offering was accepted would be determined to be the individual chosen as the kohen gadol. Korach’s 250 followers agreed, and, tragically, they were killed by a miraculous fire that erupted after they brought their incense offerings (16:35).
Rashi (16:6), citing the Midrash Tanchuma, relates that Moshe gave a more elaborate response to Korach and his followers than that which appears in the Torah. He explained to them, “Among other nations, there are many rituals and many priests, and they do not all assemble in a single building. But we only have one God, one ark, one Torah, one altar, and one high priest. You are 250 people seeking the high priesthood. I, too, want this!”
The point Moshe was making according to this Midrashic account is clear – that unlike other ancient religions, Am Yisrael had only one kohen gadol, and thus 250 men cannot all earn this special role. We might wonder, though, why Moshe added, “I, too, want this.” Of what relevance is this point to the message Moshe was conveying – that Am Yisrael has only a single kohen gadol?
Perhaps, Moshe was expressing to Korach’s group that desiring additional opportunities to serve God is in itself admirable. Korach and his cohorts might have argued, or thought to argue, that accepting the status quo, whereby they were barred from the priestly duties, would bespeak an attitude of apathy and complacency. They likely saw themselves as displaying greater piety and religious passion than the rest of the nation, who felt comfortable being excluded from the rituals of the Mishkan. And it is to this perspective, perhaps, that Moshe responded by revealing that “I, too, want this.” The passion and fervor displayed by the rebels was noble, and was felt even by Moshe himself. However, this did not make their argument correct. Although we are encouraged to energetically and enthusiastically seek to expand our current “repertoire” of mitzvot and find more opportunities to serve the Almighty, we must accept the limits on those opportunities. Not every inherently good deed is necessarily for us to perform. All mitzvot are subject to certain parameters and guidelines, and thus not all mitzvot are necessarily appropriate for all people at all times. Accepting these restrictions in no way reflects laziness, indifference or complacency. We are to constantly be seeking to grow in our religious devotion and discover new ways to serve God and to contribute to Am Yisrael and the world – but while recognizing and respecting the limits that restrict us, and finding the channels of avodat Hashem that are appropriate and suited for us.