The rationale for the challenge of Korah and those who joined him were never made explicit in the Torah. For the rabbinic sages, this lacuna provided an opportunity to examine the question of what constitutes the illegitimate challenge to power. One trend, found in a variety of midrashic sources, portrays Korah as a manipulative demagogue. In one midrash, he challenges the rational basis of ritual commandments, such a tzitzit and mezuzah, to undermine Moshe’s authority as the people’s religious leadership. (Tanhuma Korah 2) In another, Korah accuses Moshe of using the Torah’s system of taxation as a means to abscond with the property of a poor downtrodden widow. (Midrash Tehillim 1:15 Buber ed. pp. 14-5) In both of these reconstructions of the biblical story, Korah is painted as someone who is capable of using his or her persuasive abilities to fashion “fake news” in order to undermine Moshe’s legitimate authority.
These midrashim parade before us examples of the methods used by charlatans aiming to usurp power. Another midrashic tradition, aimed at explaining why Moshe had Korah and his followers take up offering incense as a test of who God chose to be the legitimate leader of the people, takes a subtle look at the characteristics which marked Moshe as the leader and Korah as his antithesis:
“Do this: You, Korah, and all your band take fire pans, and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before the Lord. Then the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be the holy one.” (Numbers 16:6-7) Why did Moshe chose this means as the test]? Moshe explained to those gathered before him that idol worshippers have many different ways of worship and each group has its own officiates. ‘We’, said Moshe, ‘however, have only one God, one Torah, one law, one altar and one High Priest. And all two hundred and fifty men of you want to be High Priest. I, also, want to be High Priest! Here, we have the most prized means of serving God, the incense offering. Among its ingredients is poison – the same poison which killed Nadav and Avihu. I warn you, don’t make yourselves liable for death. Only one of us will be chosen and all of the others will die!’ … [How did Korah get himself involved in all this?] Wasn’t Korah a discerning person? What drew him to such folly? It was his prophetic sense which misled him. [In a vision,] he saw that the prophet Samuel, who was the equal of Moshe and Aharon, was among his descendants, as well as many other prophets. He said to himself: ‘Is it possible that such greatness should descend from me and I should remain silent?’ What he did not realize was that his descendants became great only because his offspring repented. [In contrast,] Moshe understood this prophecy and knew the outcome. (adapted from Numbers Rabbah 18:8)
What distinguished Moshe from Korah? For Moshe, unlike Korah, leadership was a matter of service, not position. For Korah, status was what counted. This should be a reminder to all of us to be discerning in who we choose to lead us. The Torah wants to remind us how much character matters.