Rabbi Yisroel Chait
Transcribed by students
The Torah devotes much attention to the dispute between Korach and Moses. However, an analysis of the text does not give us a good deal of insight into the real basis of their argument. From the verses it seems that Korach was simply complaining that Moses and Aaron had usurped too much power. However, this conclusion raises several bothersome questions. Firstly Moses retort to Korach seems inappropriate. Moses sarcastically questions Korach asking him if he also desires the priesthood. Furthermore, the famous Medrash quoted by Rashi when Korach assembles 250 of the congregation leaders and together they confront Moses seem irrelevant to the argument. Korach in the leader's presence questions Moses; "Does a garment which is totally blue require fringes?" Moses responds in the affirmative and is ridiculed by Korach since one fringe of blue obviates a four-cornered garment of fringes. Korach also questions him on whether a house filled with Sefarim requires a Mezuza. Moses again responded in the affirmative. Korach again ridicules him because the obvious purpose of Mezuza is to raise a person's cognition of the creator; and surely an individual with a house filled with Sefarim has such an appreciation. This confrontation seems to be unnecessary and irrelevant if the basis of the argument was merely a power struggle.
In order to comprehend the basis of the argument it is neccesary to analyze the cause of the conflict and the personalities of the combatants. The beginning of the Parsha states that "vayikach Korach", and Korach took, took being a transitive Verb. Rashi rightfully questions "whom did he take"? and quotes the Onkelos to demonstrate that the language of taking really connotes a conflict. It means, that he took himself aside and separates himself from the congregation. Generally an argument becomes vehement when it is enraged by passions and exacerbated by emotions. However, after the moment passes, the vehemence recedes and the conflict is short lived. The combatants then communicate, and their identification with one another smolders the flames of the dispute. However, the language of vayikach (he took), is teaching us a different idea. Korach's anger consumed his essence and he was incapable of identifying with others and thus separated himself from the congregation of Israel. This was not a typical altercation, but rather this dispute overwhelmed the man to the extent that it embroiled his very being.
This anger was characteristic of the anger that Korach's ancestor, Levi, possessed. Jacob's name is not mentioned when Korach's lineage is traced, because Jacob chastised Levi for expressing his anger when he destroyed the city of Shechem. Jacob specifically admonished Shimon and Levi, and warned that he does not want to be counted in their gatherings and he is therefore excluded with reference to Korach. Jacob had the foresight to appreciate human nature and recognized that a person's characteristics are either inherited or are a product of his environment. He thereby disassociates himself from Levi's combative temperament to show that Levi did not inherit nor learn such characteristics from him. This demonstrates that the anger, which obsessed Korach, was unique to him and not attributable to Jacob.
Rashi explains at the very outset of the parsha the factor that precipitated Korach's wrath. Korach was angered at the appointment of his cousin Elitzofon Ben Uziel as prince of the children of Kahas. Moses and Aaron took the kingship and priesthood for themselves. They were the children of Amram, the eldest of four brothers. Korach believed that the determining factor for leadership was by birthright and thereby reasoned that he should be appointed prince inasmuch as he was the son of Yitzhar, the second eldest of the four brothers. However, Moses pursuant to Hashem's instructions appointed Elitzofon, the son of the youngest of the four brothers. This enraged Korach as it thwarted his quest for power.
Korach realized that a legitimate revolution could not be based on his own personal agenda for power. Korach shrewdly recognized that an attack against the authority of Moses and Aaron would require great cunning. Korach also recognized that other people resented the power of Moses and Aaron and were hostile to what seemed to be an aristocracy of the children of Amram. Therefore, Korach embraced the principles of democracy, appealing to the masses' sentiments of equality. Korach mobilized the people by claiming that Moses and Aaron were megalomaniacs who were merely interested in controlling the people. In truth, Korach himself was power hungry and personally endorsed the principles of aristocracy. He was an egomaniac and was originally very comfortable when his cousins, Moses and Aaron, were appointed leaders. After all, he felt important belonging to such an honorable family. It wasn't until he was denied the princeship that, feeling slighted; he contested the authority of Moses and Aaron.
The Torah tells us that Korach therefore enlisted Dason and Avirom, renowned demagogues, as his first supporters in his protest against Moses and Aaron. He had seen countless times that they were the leading rabble-rousers amongst the children of Israel. Korach, a good judge of character, also recognized that his advancement of the democratic principles would have a special appeal to them. Specifically, earlier in the Torah we are told of Moses's first encounter with Dason and Avirom. Moses, upon observing the Egyptian taskmaster cruelly whipping a fellow Israelite, was propelled into action by his sense of Justice. He smote the Egyptian and buried him in the sand. Later, Dason and Avirom confronted him and complained, "Who placed you as a prince and Judge over us? Are you going to kill us as you killed the Egyptian?" At this very incipient stage of their exodus, Dason and Avirom exhibited their disdain for authority. They had emerged as the progenitors of Jewish liberalism. Moses had killed the brutal Egyptian that was unduly torturing a fellow Israelite but they were concerned that Moses unfairly killed the Egyptian. Korach recognized that Dason and Avirom would be the leading advocates of his ostensible quest for democracy.
Korach's plan was slowly unfolding but he recognized that his movement required credibility which could not be gained by the endorsement of Dason and Avirom and it is here that Korach's ingenuity becomes apparent. In order for him to attack the leadership of Moses and Aaron, he had to assert that their appointment was not a directive from Hashem. He therefore argues that Moses was acting on his own initiative with respect to many issues. It is agreed upon that Moses had received the Torah, the written law, directly from Hashem. However, Korach questioned Moses assertion that the oral law was also G-d given and argued that Moses had fabricated the oral tradition. Korach further argued that G-d was only concerned with the philosophy and spirit of the written Torah and that the oral law was merely subject to interpretation based upon the spirit of the written law. He rejected the notion of Halacha as a separate and unique body of knowledge that functions in its own orbit, irrespective of the philosophy of the Mitzvah and asserted that the oral tradition is based upon a person's common sense thereby attacking the authenticity of the oral tradition as being divinely inspired. With this in mind Korach assembled the leaders of the Sanhedrin and questioned Moses about the mezuza and Fringes. Korach's questions were shrewdly phrased to appeal to man's common sense prompting the idea that G-d is only concerned with what man feels, just the basic philosophy of the Mitzvah, not the onerous details of halacha. Korach argued that it does not make sense that if someone has a home full of sefarim that a mezuza should be required. A true halachist who appreciates the beauty of a G-d given halachic system, based upon the intellectual breadth and creativity of it's principles which functions under its own guidelines, must recognize the absurdity of Korach's assertions. The argument, although nonsensical to a halachist who has the benefit of the tutelage of the great chain of scholars, our baaley mesora, was a cogent argument to many of Korach's contemporaries. Unfortunately we see the appeal of Korach's argument in our times. Many uneducated Jews today fall prey to the philosophy of Conservative and Reform Judaism, and they too are blind to the amazing intellectual depth and creative beauty of a divinely inspired halachic system. Rather they are concerned with the universal principles of justice espoused by Judaism. G-d, they claim, is only concerned with a good heart not, the burdensome and meticulous details of an antiquated halchic system. Korach's ingenuity is attested to by the success of this argument even in our day. By attacking the credibility of the Oral Tradition as G-d given, it also afforded him the opportunity to impeach Moses's and Aaron's appointment as merely personal discretionary exercises of power, not directives of G-d. Moses’ response to Korach also attests to Moses understanding of what really bothered Korach. Korach, upon making all these claims, advocating the principles of democracy and denying the authenticity of the Oral Tradition, impugned Moses claim to power. Moses did not even address the substance of Korach's arguments, but simply responded, "do you also want the priesthood?" Moses recognized and attempted to demonstrate that Korach was merely interested in power and not an enlightened egalitarian espousing the concerns of the masses. Therefore the only possible response was a determination by G-d demonstrating that Moses and Aaron were the leaders of Israel and that their method of serving G-d was the only acceptable method.
Thus Korach and his congregation were ultimately destroyed by G-d. The authenticity of halacha and the Oral Tradition was affirmed by G-d's actions.