After Korach’ revolt, which resulted in the death of his 250 followers who sought the privileges of the priesthood, God commanded Moshe to make a special covering for the altar from the firepans used by these 250 men for their illegitimate incense offering. The purpose of this covering, God explained, was to serve as “a reminder for the Israelites so that no foreign person, who is not from the offspring of Aharon, shall approach to offer incense before the Lord, and shall not be like Korach and his followers, as the Lord spoke through Moshe” (17:5).
Rashi, citing from the Midrash, associates the phrase “be-yad Moshe” (“through Moshe,” or, literally, “in Moshe’s hand”) with an incident that occurred much earlier, when Moshe’s hand turned leprous. As we read in Sefer Shemot (4:6), when God first instructed Moshe to go to Egypt and lead Benei Yisrael to freedom, He equipped him with three miraculous “signs” with which he would prove to the people that He was indeed sent by God. One of these signs was that his hand miraculously became entirely white, and then afterward regained its normal, healthy color. Rashi comments that the phrase “be-yad Moshe” in reference to Korach’s revolt alludes to the fact that non-kohanim who seek the privileges of the priesthood are liable to be stricken with tzara’at, like Moshe’s hand.
How might we explain this association drawn by the Midrash between Korach’s revolt and Moshe’s leprous hand?
Rashi, in his commentary to Parashat Shemot, writes (based on the Midrash Tanchuma) that Moshe’s leprous hand served as a punishment for his initial refusal to accept the mantle of leadership, claiming that the nation would not trust him. In a sense, Moshe at that time committed the opposite of Korach’s followers’ mistake. He refused to accept a leadership position that was assigned to him, whereas Korach’s followers coveted and demanded the rights to a position that was barred from them. Moshe deemed himself unworthy of, or unsuitable for, a prestigious post for which he was destined, while Korach’s group insisted they were deserving of a post that was reserved for others.
The Midrash perhaps seeks to convey the message that we must avoid both these mistakes. We must neither covet roles and positions that lie beyond our reach, that are not meant for us, nor shy away from challenging responsibilities which we are capable of filling. Our hand – the symbol of our potential, of the contributions we are capable of making – becomes “leprous,” it loses its strength and vitality, when we refuse to take on roles we should be taking on, and also when we seek roles for which we are unsuited. We must all try, to the best of our ability, to carefully determine our strengths and talents and commit ourselves to maximizing our potential, without lazily declining or being distracted by the pursuit of goals we are not meant to pursue.