Korach was absolutely right about the nature of the Jewish people. They are all holy; the mitzvah of tzitzit just given testifies to that. In fact, when you look carefully, even the first test devised by Moshe supports Korach’s thesis. You might have expected that the result of the test was supposed to be something akin to the result of the test of the staffs in chapter 17, in which Aharon’s staff is treated uniquely. Presumably, ‘the one who God chooses’ would be represented by the one for whom heavenly fire descends.
Truly, all the congregation is holy, and heavenly fire descends for all of them. And in the opening verses of chapter 17, God tells Moshe that the frying pans used by Korach’s congregation need to be taken and made part of the altar, for they have become holy. Apparently, even service by non-priests has religious significance.
There was one small hitch, which cost the 250 holy Jews who offered incense their lives, as it cost the kohanim Nadav and Avihu their lives in very similar circumstances.
Korach was right about the people, but he was absolutely wrong about the nature of Jewish leadership, and this was a fundamental error he shared with Datan and Aviram. For them, leadership is above the people, it is a form of serara, of lording over the people. The special privileges leaders receive are testament to this elevated stature.
The correct model is the exact opposite. As Rabban Gamliel expresses it when offering a job to two rabbis: “It is not lordship I offer you, it is servitude!” Of course, it is lordship as well; it is power, and privilege. But when that is a person’s goal, or if it turns into their primary motivation, leadership becomes self-destructive. Barely a week goes by without a headline which proves that, eventually, hubris brings this about even absent heavenly fire.
If you read the text closely, you’ll notice that it never says that Aharon himself offers incense. When does he? Only when instructed by Moshe to save precisely those people who were stubbornly insisting on their rebellion against these two leaders with the harshest of accusations. Offering incense for the sake of proving status would have killed Aharon as well, as his sons’ tragic experience proved. Privileges are granted to leaders only by the merit of, and in the service of, the people.
this is my daily 929 blog, breathlessly following the 929 daily tanach project. Learn more about it at, and learn more, at 929.org.il.