One way this can be read is that there never really was a two-sided fight. In Rashi’s perush on this perek, which is primarily based on the Midrash Tanchuma, Aharon never responds to the claims at all. As a known “ohev shalom and rodef shalom,” he shuns machloket at all costs. Later in the perek, where Moshe personally reaches out to Datan and Aviram, Rashi remarks that the reader learns from Moshe that “one should not maintain a dispute.” Therefore, although Moshe vigorously responds to Korach’s claims, he does not want there to be needless bloodshed if an alternative solution could be reached.
Moshe’s behavior in the first confrontation with the rebels also reflects his alternating strategies of trying to reason with their claims and warning them that such a dispute will not end well for any of them. In a touching comment, Rashi states that Moshe told them he understood why they would also want to be high priests; he too wishes he could be one. However, Jewish observance is structured such that that there should be only one Kohein Gadol, and Hashem chose Aharon. He also asks that they should think about all the other privileges and rights Hashem has given them, and be grateful.
On the other hand, Moshe is also warning them against how the dispute will end. The Chizkuni states that when Moshe suggested the test of the ketoret (incense), he was hoping that the rebels would dismiss such a test as reckless endangerment, and would refuse to go through with it, lest they all die. The Seforno also notes that when Moshe use the phrase “Hu HaKadosh,” he was openly warning them that only one person would survive, thereby warning them against this course of action.
However, a second way one could also argue that the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot could be read as “a dispute between Korach and the rest of his followers.” A common device in biblical analysis when groups of people perform contradictory and conflicting actions are to divide the group into subdivisions, each with its own motivation. Therefore, when one takes individual motivations into account when learning the text, the unity of the story is preserved. This device famously is used by the Ramban at Kriat Yam Suf, where Bnei Yisrael is found both davening to Hashem and screaming at Moshe that he took them out of Mitzrayim to die. The Netziv takes this approach when he looks at the different results of how the members of Korach’s party died. Datan and Aviram are swallowed by the earth alive, along with their wives and children. The 250 followers were burned by a Divine fire emanating from the Mishkan. The pans they used the the offering were eventually hammered into a covering for the Mizbayach as a warning against behaving like Korach and his followers. As for Korach himself, he is both burned and swallowed alive. What is the significance of these deaths?
The Netziv argues that their deaths represent their underlying intentions when they joined in the machloket. Datan and Aviram had a personal vendetta against Moshe, and were happy to fight against him. Therefore, their hatred and jealously swallowed them up, both literally and figuratively, as they were no longer capable of thinking clearly about their course of action. They did not care if their families would die alongside them; the main point was that the dispute would weaken Moshe’s position.
In contrast, the 250 followers participated in the offering of the Ketoret because they genuinely felt this was the greatest way one could come close to Hashem. They felt deprived of the chance to reach the spiritual levels that a Kohein Gadol could reach by offering Ketoret. Therefore, they were all willing to offer the Ketoret, even at the cost of their lives, if it meant they would reach what they perceived was the highest level of connection to G-d. Hashem respected them for their spiritual longing, and sent them a fire “directly from the Mishkan,” as the way they would die. Their pans were placed on the mizbeiach as a warning to the people that although it is commendable to try and reach for elevated spiritual heights, one should realize that the only way to do so is by performing the avodah that G-d has given us, as opposed to trying to imitate someone else’s service. Such imitations could only end disastrously, as a foreigner who offers ketoret deserves death. In the end, although their motivations were noble, the true way for them to reach spiritual heights would have been by following the will of Hashem and excelling in the avodah He had given them.
In contrast, Korach’s death represents his hypocrisy. Externally, he cloaked himself in the mantle of the 250 followers, arguing that “everyone is holy,” and thereby deserves a chance to offer ketoret. Internally, he was more interested in personal power, and wanted Moshe’s role for himself. Therefore, his burning was for his external appearance of a religious grievance, while the swallowing represented his lust for power, his true motivation for the machloket.
Therefore, regardless of the approach one takes in understanding the machloket of Korach and his followers, one can find numerous insights and moral lessons from this story. If one takes the approach of Rashi, one realizes the futility of maintaining arguments, and should try to find a peaceful and amenable solution for all parties, even if one is in the right as Moshe was. Also, that one should think carefully about the potential negative consequences of entering a rash argument for no reason. Finally, according to the Netziv, the message one takes from the dispute of Korach is that although it is commendable to reach for spiritual heights, the reaching must be done according to halachic parameters. Even if one perceives a specific form of service as being “holier” or “more spiritual,” one should not do it if that is not part of his or her religious role, avoiding trying to be someone that he or she is not. Instead, if one turns that desire inward, he or she will always find room for growth within their own roles. Therefore, as the Mishnah warned, this machloket was not a proper one, like Hillel and Shammai, where their only desire was to understand the truth as opposed to furthering their own egos. The reading of the phrase “Korach v’kol adato,” concludes that in the end, the fight was about their own egotistic desires, which brought about their tragic deaths.
Adina C. Brizel is from Kew Gardens Hills, New York. She recently completed a MS degree from the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.