Korach is identified as the son of Yitzhar, grandson of K'hat, great grandson of Levi. It is quite unusual to identify biblical personalities as such. Rashi points out that the lineage mentioned in the pasuk stops before reaching Yaakov Avinu who foresaw Korach's wickedness and pleaded with G-d not to be included in the Torah's account of Korach's deeds. On the other hand, it reached back to Levi because Korach's being from Levi was the major factor involved in the whole episode.
Korach, Datan & Aviram and ON b. Pelet (who backed out in time) challenge Moshe's authority. Korach enlists 250 men to publicize his/their "cause".
[SDT] Korach was a first cousin of Moshe and Aharon. He felt slighted by the fact that both top positions - the leadership and Kohen Gadol-ship - went to two of his uncle Amram's sons (Moshe & Aharon) and the leadership of the K'hat family went to another cousin, the son of Korach's father's younger brother - Elitzafan b. Uziel. Korach found sympathy for his cause within the tribe of Reuven because Reuven himself was passed over for the leadership (which went to Yehuda), the birthright (Yosef received the double portion of the firstborn in the form of the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe) and the Kehuna/Leviya.
Moshe proposes a test - both Aharon and Korach's people will offer incense before G-d and G-d will indicate whom He chooses. Moshe tries to talk Korach out of his fight by telling him that being a Levi is special - why seek more? Moshe then calls for Datan & Aviram (from here we learn that the court sends a deputy - a shoteir - to bring in an accused party); they arrogantly refuse Moshe's summons.
[SDT] Sources tell us that Korach taunted Moshe Rabeinu with two mocking questions - A talit made completely of T'cheilet, does it require Tzitzit (with the T'cheilet strand)? A house filled with Torah scrolls, does it require a mezuza? Both questions pointed to the same argument: A Nation of holy people, people who heard G-d's Voice at Sinai, do they require holy leaders? The basis of suggesting the talit question is the juxtaposition of the Korach episode to the portion of Tzitzit at the end of last week's sedra. The Kli Yakar suggests that the mezuza question is alluded to by the description of Datan & Aviram arrogantly standing at the doorway of their tent and mocking G-d's commandments and Moshe's leadership.
Moshe angrily asks G-d not to accept the incense offerings of Korach's group. Moshe then reiterates the challenge to Korach. Korach gathers the People to witness the "showdown"; the 250 people and Aharon will each have the special vessel onto which they will place a glowing coal, onto which they will put the incense and they will all be standing at the entrance to the Ohel Mo'ed. G-d's "glory" was revealed to the People.
[SDT] The Gemara tells us that when Korach challenged Moshe's authority, it was the Sun and the Moon that appeared before G-d and said: If you side with the son of Amram (i.e. Moshe), then we will continue to shine; if not, we stop shining. What is the significance of this statement from the Gemara? One commentator points out that the Sun and the Moon were originally of equal greatness, and the Moon was diminished because "two kings cannot rule with one crown". This was exactly one of the problems with Korach's arguments, so the Sun and Moon were particularly appropriate participants in this issue. Notice that not only must the sun acknowledge the situation, but so must the moon. Korach's downfall was his lack of acceptance of a moon-like role.
[Train of thought... When the Moon's brightness was diminished, so that there not be two equal rulers in the sky, it got the worse end of the deal. So as compensation, the Moon sometimes is visible during the day, when the Sun is out, but the Sun shines exclusively during the day. Except for above the Arctic Circle and below the Antarctic Circle, where the Sun reigns day and night. Ah, but only for half the year. The other half of the year, it is out of the picture completely. So that evens out. But the visibility of the Moon by day does restore a little balance.]
The People shouted in panic when they witnessed what was happening. A Divine fire consumed the 250 incense offerers. G-d tells Moshe to tell Elazar b. Aharon to collect the fire-pans and scatter the burning coals. The copper from the pans was to be used to plate the Mizbei'ach as a reminder that a non-Kohen must not attempt to usurp the Kohen's authority.
[SDT] The earth not only swallowed Korach's gang, but their possessions as well. The message, says IMREI SHEFER, is that one's wealth often causes a person to be arrogant. This, in turn, leads sometimes to challenging authority. The people's possessions were not innocent bystanders, so to speak, to Korach's rebellion.
Note that in Korach's rebellion we see not only two punishments, but two very different kinds of punishments, which, in turn, reflect the types of sin. Datan and Aviram and their ilk were plunged down into the bowels of the Earth. But the 250 K'toret-offerers, they were honorable people. They were godly. The Torah testifies to that when we are first introduced to them. They honestly believed that they were making proper offerings to G-d. Otherwise, they would not have risked their lives. They must have been surprised to have failed! Their sin was reaching TOO high towards the Divine. And their punishment was to be struck down by Divine fire (as had been Nadav and Avihu).
Here's another thought... Moshe was chosen by G-d to lead the people. True. And he will always be on a higher level than the rest of us. We, not G-d, elevated Moshe even higher. We decided that we did not want to hear the "Voice of G-d" anymore and we requested that Moshe tell us what G-d wants of us, and we would comply. G-d spoke to all of Israel. That was the plan. And that put all of Israel on the level of prophecy. With Moshe as the chief prophet. We forfeited our direct communication with G-d, and we made Moshe the ONLY prophet. (Let's not complicate the issue with the 70 elders who shared of Moshe's prophecy, like a candle that lights others.)
The Gemara says that the "deal" that the People of Israel made at Sinai concerning not having direct communication from G-d, was an irrevocable, forever deal. Korach wanted to change his mind. Perhaps he was no longer confident that Moshe could actually bring the People into Eretz Yisra'el, after the whole Meraglim fiasco. The merit of this theory is that it balances the motivations of Korach's gang. Datan and Aviram were BAD. The K'toret bringers were not necessarily evil. Probably not.
Sometimes, in times of trouble, Moshe prays to G-d extensively. His prayer after the Sin of the Golden Calf is an example of long prayer. We can even say that it was a prayer that lasted 40 days. When Miriam was stricken with Tzora'at, Moshe uttered to short 5-word (11 letter) prayer for her wellbeing - KEIL NA R'FA NA LAH. And at this point in Korach, Moshe senses that prayer will not work - swift action is called for.
Another way to look at this is that "And they fell on their faces" means they had no prayers to offer. This told them that disaster will immediately follow (the plague) and therefore they acted immediately to stop it.
The Torah speaks of the 10 times we "tried G-d's patience" in the Midbar.
CHEIT HA'EIGEL resulted in the deaths of the actual perpetrators (3000 men), but the rest of the People were basically forgiven after Moshe's pleading. The spies themselves were killed, the adult male population was banned from entry into Eretz Yisrael, and were to die out in the course of the 40 years of wandering. It might not sound like it, but the people were basically forgiven for this too (but with harsher punishment).
In contrast, the 250 incense offerers were consumed by fire, Korach, Datan and Aviram and their people, households, and possessions were swallowed up by the Earth, and for complaining in the aftermath of the Korach rebellion, a plague erupted and claimed 14,700 lives "on the spot". The plague was "contained" by Moshe's swift actions. A heavy price was paid for the Korach fiasco.
Combining different ideas in the commentaries, we can suggest the following: The Sin of the Golden Calf represents sins against G-d. He can be, and often is, most forgiving for that kind of sin. The sin of the spies was an affront to Eretz Yisrael. This, so to speak, G-d considered a graver sin, and was less forgiving. Korach's rebellion was directed against Moshe. It was a BEIN ADAM L'CHAVEIRO issue. These are the kinds of sins that G-d is least willing to forgive.
The same observation has been made in comparing the Flood, which came as a result of a breakdown in society, with the Tower of Babel, where people united to rebel against G-d. The punishment was much less severe in that case.
Moshe showed the staffs to the People and each tribe took its staff back.
Leviyim are required to guard the Mikdash . (Honor guard)
Kohanim and Leviyim are forbidden to perform each others sacred tasks . A non-Kohen/Levi may not work in the Temple . It is forbidden to disregard the obligations of the Temple honor-guard .
The Torah next lists several gifts that are given to the Kohen - the meat of certain korbanot, t'ruma, bikurim, consecrated objects, the firstborn of kosher farm animals and the redemption/exchange for a firstborn donkey. Firstborn humans are to be redeemed for 5 silver shekels .
Firstborn cow/goat/sheep may not be redeemed , but must be brought as a korban within a year (if unfit for the Altar, the b'chor is the possession of the kohen without restrictions). All gifts of the kehuna (24 in number) are for Aharon and his descendants in perpetuity. However, the Kohen does not receive a portion of land in Israel. (This is the basis of the complex intertwined relationship between kohen and non-kohen.)
Human firstborns MUST be redeemed. Even though the text of Pidyon HaBen calls for the kohen to ask the father of the baby which he prefers, his son or the 5 silver coins, the father may not opt for the money.
The firstborn of a donkey SHOULD be redeemed, but there is a fallback mitzva, frowned upon but nonetheless on the books and available.
The firstborn of a kosher domesticated farm animal (cow, goat, sheep) MAY NOT be redeemed.
No other firstborns have sanctity and mitzvot associated with them. Not horse or camel, not deer and antelope, not cat or dog or bird, etc. In other words, we do not generalize these mitzvot by saying that the Torah was just using an example.
Sh'vi'i - Seventh Aliya - 12 p'sukim - 18:21-32
Leviyim also do not receive land; their role is that of a spiritual functionary. They receive Ma'aser in lieu of a portion of land. (They also had 48 cities designated by the Tribes, for them to live in.) The service of the Leviyim in the Mikdash constitutes a positive mitzva . So too it is a mitzva to give Ma'aser Rishon to a Levi . In turn, the Levi is commanded to give l/10 of his tenth to a kohen . This is known as t'rumat ma'aser or ma'aser min hama'aser. This mitzva is performed in a technical way nowadays in Eretz Yisrael to permit the balance of the produce to us.
Notice that Korach is part story and part mitzva. Pretty differentiated, but definitely interrelated, as we've been saying. Note too the very sobering ending of the sedra. The Korach story is depressing enough, but as a once upon a time, a long time ago, we can keep our distance. Not so the mitzva content of the sedra. There's no fooling around. We don't do these mitzvot, we die. Keep the mitzvot and we will not die. Very strongly put. It partially means, learn the Korach lesson, because it isn't just a story — it applies to each of us.
Haftara - 24 p'sukim -Shmuel Alef 11:14-12:22