And Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kahat separated himself, along with Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and Ohn, the son of Pelet – the sons of Reuven. And they arose before Moshe, along with two hundred fifty men of distinction from the Children of Israel – princes of the congregation, those summoned to gatherings, men of fame. (Sefer BeMidbar 16:1-2)
Korach challenges the leadership of Moshe and Aharon
These passages introduce the rebellion led by Korach. The parasha is devoted to describing this uprising and its aftermath. The passages explain that Korach recruited an impressive group of co-conspirators. These included representatives from the leadership of the tribe of Reuven, and two hundred fifty members of the nation’s leadership. This group joined together to confront Moshe and Aharon and challenge Moshe’s authority.
They presented a compelling complaint. They asserted that the entire nation is sacred. Why was one tribe and family selected to perform the service in the Mishcan – the Tabernacle? In other words, they questioned the appointment of Aharon and his sons as the Kohen Gadol and Kohanim – High Priest and priests. They also opposed the selection of the tribe of Leyve – the tribe of Moshe and Aharon – to support and assist the Kohanim in their service.
Later, a second criticism emerged. Datan and Aviram asserted that Moshe had not earned the right to be their leader. He redeemed them from Egypt but had not improved their lives. They were in the barren wilderness; they had no comforts or luxuries. What had Moshe accomplished to deserve their loyalty and obedience?
Moshe responded. His response consisted of three elements. He immediately turned to Hashem in prayer. Then, he suggested to his adversaries a test to confirm his appointment of Aharon. Those who believe that they have the right to offer sacrifices should meet with Aharon at the Mishcan. Each should offer incense. Hashem will send forth a flame and consume the offerings that He accepts. If their offerings are accepted, then they will have substantiated their claim. Finally, Moshe reasoned with his opponents. He attempted to persuade them to abandon their rebellion.
Moshe failed to dissuade his opponents. The next day, the test was performed. A flame descended and consumed all of those, other than Aharon, who offered incense. At the same time, the earth opened. The other followers of Korach fell into the abys.
Moshe’s response begins with prayer
It is noteworthy that Moshe immediately responded to this confrontation with prayer. What was the content of this prayer? The commentators make a number of suggestions. Rashi explains that Moshe prayed on behalf of the nation. He petitioned Hashem to act with mercy. It is apparent from this immediate petition that Moshe viewed this confrontation as a serious sin. His first reaction was not to reason with his opponents. Also, it was not to suggest the test. Instead, his instant response was prayer and supplication. He expected Hashem to swiftly and severely punish the people. In order to avert calamity, Moshe pleaded with Hashem for tolerance. Why was this confrontation so reprehensible? It seems to be far less blasphemous than many of the previous clashes between Moshe and the nation. After all, they were challenging Moshe and not Hashem.
And Moshe said to Korach: Listen to me children of Leyve. Is it a small matter to you that the L-rd of Israel separated you from among the congregation of Israel to draw you close to Him, to perform the service in the Tabernacle of Hashem, and to stand before the congregation to serve them? He drew you close and your brothers, the sons of Leyve, with you. And you seek also the priesthood! (Sefer BeMidbar 16:8-11)
Moshe’s assessment of the seriousness of this confrontation was based upon his understanding of the complaint. This understanding emerges in the above passages. They are a portion of Moshe’s response to his adversaries. It does not seem that this reply is consistent with their challenge. Korach and his followers rejected the institutions of leadership. They questioned the legitimacy of a priesthood. They argued that all the people are sanctified. They demanded a more egalitarian system. However, Korach does not describe an alternative to the priesthood. Is he suggesting that the institution should be abolished or is he promoting a more inclusive model? If the latter, what would be the parameters of the new model?
Moshe’s reply reveals that he understood that Korach did not wish to eliminate the priesthood. He wished to refashion it into a more inclusive institution. This suggests that the narrative has a “back-story”. Knowledge of this background to Korach’s criticisms informed his understanding of Korach’s designs and shaped Moshe’s response. What is this background? Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra provides this information.
And Moshe recorded the words of Hashem. He arose in the morning, he built an altar and twelve monuments corresponding with the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent forth the young men of the Children of Israel and they offered Olah sacrifices and they slaughtered Shelamim sacrifices of bulls to Hashem. (Sefer Shemot 24:4-5)
The transfer of the priesthood
These passages describe events that occurred at the Sinai Revelation. These events occurred before the establishment of the Mishcan. The tribe of Leyve had not yet been selected to serve in the Tabernacle; Aharon and his sons had not been appointed as Kohanim. Who offered the sacrifices described in the passages? Rashi and others explain that these sacrifices were offered by the nation’s firstborn sons. The priesthood belonged to the firstborn. How and why was the priesthood transferred from the firstborn to Aharon and his sons?
The reassignment of the priesthood was one of the outcomes of the sin of the Egel – the Golden Calf. Through the nation’s retreat into idolatry, its firstborn were disqualified from serving as priests. Priesthood was transferred to the tribe of Leyve – who opposed the worship of the Egel – and specifically to Aharon and his sons.
This measure was more than a reassignment of the priesthood from one group to another. The reassignment altered the fundamental nature of the institution of priesthood. The priesthood of the firstborn was inclusive. Every tribe and family participated through its firstborn. The transfer of the priesthood to the tribe of Leyve and the family of Aharon excluded the other tribes and their families from participation.
Moshe understood Korach’s vision. He sought to reinstitute the original priesthood of the firstborn. This was the egalitarian and inclusive priesthood he promoted. Korach’s argument was that the entire nation is sacred. Therefore, every tribe and family should participate in the priesthood through its firstborn.
And they gathered against Moshe and Aharon and they said to them: It is much for you! For all of the congregation is sacred and Hashem is among them. Why have you elevated yourselves over the assembly of Hashem? (Sefer BeMidbar 16:3)
Korach questions Moshe’s legitimacy
We will understand Moshe’s response of terror and his immediate petition for Hashem’s mercy when we appreciate one more aspect of Korach’s position. In these passages Korach and is followers articulate their criticism. They argue that the entire nation is sanctified by the presence of Hashem in its midst. They add an accusation. Moshe and Aharon have seized authority over the nation. In other words, Moshe and Aharon were not appointed by Hashem. They have assumed leadership through their own initiative.
Ibn Ezra further describes this criticism. The nation – even Korach and his followers – did not deny Moshe’s status as prophet and as Hashem’s messenger. They could not. They had witnessed the redemption from Egypt and they had observed Moshe enter into the cloud at Sinai to commune with Hashem. However, they also believed that Moshe was capable of promoting his own interests. They believed that some directives communicated by Moshe were not from Hashem; they were his own innovations. Specifically, they believed that the reassignment of the priesthood from the firstborn to his own tribe and brother’s family was Moshe’s innovation. They argued that they had not heard Hashem direct this reassignment. In short, the fundamental premise of this rebellion was that the Torah was not entirely the word of Hashem. Some portions were Moshe’s own product.
Now, the severity of this rebellion emerges. Korach and his followers denied one of the fundamental principles of the Torah. Rambam – Maimonides – outlines this principle:
The eighth fundamental principle is that the Torah is from Hashem. This principle requires that we believe that this entire Torah that is in our hands today is the Torah that was given to Moshe. It is in its entirety from Hashem… The Sages said that one who says that the entire Torah is from Hashem except for one passage that was not said by Hashem but by Moshe himself is asserting that the Torah is not from Hashem…
Also, its received interpretation is from Hashem. The succah that we make today, and the lulav, shofar, tzitzit, tefilin, and similar items are those that Hashem communicated to Moshe that he should communicate to us. He was merely acting as a trustworthy messenger in that which he brought (to us) (Rambam, Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1)
Korach’s rebellion contested this principle. He and his followers were only willing to acknowledge that those commandments they had heard at Sinai were beyond question. All other commandments were communicated through Moshe. These, they claimed, might be legitimately challenged. In short, they undermined the authenticity of the Torah. They were only interested in challenging the institution of priesthood. However, their argument could be applied to virtually every element of the Torah.
This explains Moshe’s terror. It is true that Korach and his followers did not complain against Hashem or challenge Hashem’s authority. However, their rebellion was an attack on the legitimacy of the Torah. Moshe recognized the severity of this rebellion and immediately petitioned Hashem for mercy.
 The criticism of Datan and Aviram is not completely clear from its description in the passages. This interpretation is suggested by Ibn Ezra. See: Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:14.
 The Torah describes Moshe falling upon his face. Most commentators understand the phrase as describing Moshe prostrating himself in prayer.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:4.
 Rashi responds to this issue. He explains that this confrontation was not remarkable. It was not more serious than previous conflicts. However, Moshe was responding to the pattern of behavior that had developed. Each time the nation had sinned it had been punished. Nonetheless, a new confrontation emerged. Moshe feared that with this conflict the nation had exhausted Hashem’s indulgence. Ibn Ezra (16:28) suggests that this rebellion was uniquely serious.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 24:5.
 See Shemot 19:22 and comments of Rashi and Ibn Ezra. In this passage the firstborn are described as Kohanim.
 Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:1-3.
 Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:3.
 Rambam explains in the introduction to his commentary on the Mishne that not every detail of the Torah’s interpretation was revealed to Moshe. Much of the Oral Law was developed by the Sages. However, Moshe did receive the basic interpretation of the Torah’s commandments. In the above, he is not proposing that out tefilin are the same as those worn by Moshe. Our Sages dispute many of the design details of tefilin. He means that our tefilin are basically the same as Moshe’s.