The Dispute of Korach and His Company
Translated by Kaeren Fish
And they rose up before Moshe, with men of Bnei Yisrael – two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, regularly summoned to the congregation, men of renown. And they gathered themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation – they are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst; why then do you raise yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord?” (Bamidbar 16:2-3)
This group, headed by Korach, does not deny God’s existence or the chosenness of Israel. On the contrary, their argument is that the entire congregation is holy and that God is in their midst. Their protest concerns the “family appointments” supposedly made by Moshe and Aharon.
But there is another faction, headed by Datan and Aviram, that is also part of the dispute. Their protest is a completely different one:
“Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you also make yourself a prince over us?” (Bamidbar 16:13)
This is both a rejection of the Divine plan behind the Exodus from Egypt and a claim that Moshe invented it in order to achieve his leadership position.
How could two such fundamentally different groups join forces in a single protest?
The answer lies in the role of Korach, who managed to incite the people and unify them around a single purpose, without getting stuck in details of ideology and motivation. Ramban offers an explanation of how Korach was able to do this. He writes that as long as Bnei Yisrael were in the wilderness of Sinai, things were good for them and no one stood any chance of inciting them against their leaders, Moshe and Aharon. However, as the journey progressed, there was accumulating frustration and bitterness among various elements. Korach was resentful that Elitzafan was chosen as nasi and that Aharon was the Kohen Gadol; Datan and Aviram were bitter about leaving Egypt; the firstborn sons were upset over losing their special role in Divine service following the sin of the golden calf. As long as conditions were good, these complaints did not surface. But the moment God decreed that the entire generation would die out after wandering in the wilderness for forty years, a mood of despair settled over the people and all the grievances burst forth in a torrent of protest. Korach, the coordinator and activist, managed to direct it all in a single direction – against Moshe and Aharon.
While this explanation makes sense, a review of the continuation of the text raises some difficulties. First of all, the affair of Datan and Aviram is swiftly concluded; there is a warning, and immediately afterwards they are punished. However, when it comes to the two hundred and fifty men who offer incense, not only is there no mention of any warning, but the matter of Datan and Aviram interrupts the narrative about them, and their punishment is mentioned only after that of Datan and Aviram.
To understand the reason for this, let us reconsider the chain of events. After Korach and the two hundred and fifty men who are with him declare their rebellion, Moshe proposes the test of the incense. This proposal is a warning of sorts, since everyone is well aware, in light of the fate of Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, that an offering of incense that is not willed by God has catastrophic consequences. Nevertheless, they prepare for the test:
And they took every man his censer, and put fire in them, and laid incense of them, and stood in the door of the Tent of Meeting with Moshe and Aharon. (Bamidbar 16:18)
Now, suddenly, there is a twist in the plot: Korach rises up from among the two hundred and fifty rebels and calls for the entire congregation to join in the rebellion:
And Korach gathered all the congregation against them to the door of the Tent of Meeting… (Bamidbar 16:19).
He tries to incite the nation as a whole to rebel. At this point, the text shifts its focus to Datan and Aviram:
And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: “Speak to the congregation, saying: Get up from about the dwelling of Korach, Datan, and Aviram.” (Bamidbar 16:23-24)
The reason for the sudden change in focus is clear: Korach is now positioned with this faction (“the dwelling of Korach, Datan and Aviram”). Korach, the facilitator and coordinator, runs from one group to the other, fanning the flames of conflict and hatred.
Still, we are left wondering how Korach – who had originally argued that the entire congregation was holy, with God in their midst – could align himself with Datan and Aviram, who deny the most fundamental principles of faith and purpose.
Our discussion above helps to solve this puzzle. The events occurred in close succession: the two hundred and fifty men stand ready, their censers in their hands; Korach suddenly makes an appeal to the general public, and gives even the heretical Datan and Aviram a voice in the protest. Korach’s strategy is based on his assumption that the incense, which has “proved” itself in the past as having the power to halt a plague that was running rampant throughout the nation, will be able to atone even for Datan and Aviram. He fails to realize that the incense can atone for and save only those who are worthy of such deliverance; for those who are undeserving, the incense is a “strange fire.”
Now we see that the seeming delay, or interruption, between the scene of the two hundred and fifty men with their censers and the consuming fire that punishes them, does not exist. It is all part of their own actions – their attempt to atone for Datan and Aviram through use of incense. After this attempt fails and Datan and Aviram meet their deaths, their own punishment follows.
(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Korach 5752 .)
 A similar situation repeated itself in the time of King Shelomo. He laid extensive taxes on the people, but since they lived well under his rule, no one led a protest. At the end of his life – and especially after his death, when the situation deteriorated – the people came clamoring to his son, Rechovam, demanding a reduction of taxes.
 Chazal debate the question of whether Korach was among those punished by fire or among those swallowed by the earth. According to some opinions, he suffered both punishments, and in light of this image of him going about from one faction to the other, the reason for this is clear.