While some meforshim have sought, based on esoteric concepts, to explain Korach’s motives in a positive way, the understanding of Chazal and most meforshim is that Korach was motivated by either arrogance or jealousy.
How did it happen that Korach, of the same superior shevet as Moshe and Aharon, suffered from an inherent spiritual weakness that caused him to rebel against Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon Hakohen, both of whom — as he was well aware — were chosen by Hashem for their respective positions?
As Rashi asks: How did Korach, a wise man, go so badly astray?
Chazal indicate that it was his wealth, procured in a wrong way, that caused him to become arrogant.
The Midrash says that Korach’s wealth, a vast fortune that he had somehow been entrusted with while Bnei Yisrael were still in Mitzrayim, came from the treasure houses of Pharaoh. Pharaoh had brutally enslaved Bnei Yisrael for many decades (although presumably Korach, as a member of shevet Levi, was personally exempt from the hard labor), so what was so grievously wrong with the fact that Korach had allocated some of Pharaoh’s wealth for himself?
TheBen Ish Chai explains with a mashal by the Ohel Yaakov.
Someone owned a tavern that was always crowded with inebriated peasants. One day, as the peasants were drinking their fill, a thief began to empty their wallets. The tavern owner grabbed the thief and tried to throw him out of the place.
“I would never steal from you!” the thief protested. “I only steal from the drunken peasants; why should this bother you?”
“Fool!” the tavern owner replied. “These drunks still have to pay me for their drinks, and the money you were trying to steal will shortly be mine. So you’re actually stealing my money, not theirs.”
In addition to the treasures Bnei Yisrael borrowed from the Mitzrim before leaving Egypt, they procured far greater fortunes when what is known as bizas hayam washed up on the shore after Krias Yam Suf.
Where did all these treasures come from? Why did the Mitzrim bring them along?
The Ben Ish Chai explains that while Bnei Yisrael “cleaned out” the homes of ordinary Egyptians before leaving (as partial payment for their long years of enslavement), they did not dare “borrow” anything from Pharaoh himself.
The Egyptian king, determined to show that he had no fear of failure in his military mission to force Bnei Yisrael to return to Mitzrayim, emptied out his treasure houses and took their contents with him.
Now had Korach not appropriated a significant part of Pharaoh’s treasures for himself, that too would have been taken along by Pharaoh on his fateful journey, and washed up on shore with the rest of the bizas hayam. Then the treasures would have been divided among all of Bnei Yisrael.
Thus what Korach allocated to himself actually belonged to all his brethren equally. His taking these treasures was considered stealing from his fellows, and had a devastating effect on his character.
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Chazal tell us that part of Korach’s tactics was to ask Moshe Rabbeinu whether a tallis made entirely of t’cheiles would be obligated in tzitzis, and whether a house filled with sefarim is required to have a mezuzah.
When Moshe Rabbeinu said yes to both these scenarios, Korach and his supporters began to mock him.
Why did Korach choose these two examples? What do they symbolize?
The Maharal says that Korach was mounting an attack on the roles of both Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon Hakohen.
Moshe Rabbeinu, who heard the mitzvos from Hashem Himself and taught them to Bnei Yisrael, symbolized Torah. Aharon, as Kohen Gadol, symbolized Avodah.
The Torah teaches that the mitzvah of tzitzis is linked to the practical fulfillment of the mitzvos: “You shall see it and you shall remember all the mitzvos of Hashem and perform them…”
Korach presumed that Moshe Rabbeinu would rule that a tallis of t’cheiles would be exempt from tzitzis, for if the whole article of clothing is t’cheiles there is no further need of an additional thread of t’cheiles. Similarly, he expected that Moshe Rabbeinu would acknowledge that a house filled with sefarim had no need for an additional mezuzah.
He was prepared to make the argument that since the entire congregation was holy, it was akin to a tallis made entirely of t’cheiles, and had no need for Aharon Hakohen to help it perfect itself in avodah. Similarly, since the entire nation had received the Torah at Har Sinai, it was like a house filled with sefarim that had no need for Moshe Rabbeinu to teach it Torah.
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May the Ribbono shel Olam grant us the wisdom to learn from the tragic lesson of Korach never to give in to the temptation of acquiring money that is not meant for us. May we also merit understanding the crucial role that the sages play in the transmission of Torah.