Korach’s popular uprising is gathering steam. Having accused Moshe of misuse of power and nepotism, Korach organizes a rally of impressive size [Bemidbar 16:19]: “Korach gathered the entire community at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Then the Presence of G-d appeared to the whole community”. G-d is not impressed and His response is unequivocal: The uprising must come to an end. G-d tells Moshe [Bemidbar 16:21] “Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!” Moshe is aghast at G-d’s threat and he tells Him [Bemidbar 16:22] “O G-d, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one person sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” G-d does not explicitly respond to Moshe’s plea. Instead, He tells Moshe [Bemidbar 16:24] “Speak to the community and say: Withdraw from about the abodes of Korach, Datan, and Aviram”. Bad things are going to happen and you do not want to be in the vicinity. Bad things do indeed happen: The earth opens, swallowing Korach and his followers and ending the uprising.
Let us take a closer look at the exchange between G-d and Moshe. G-d informs Moshe that He is going to annihilate “the community”. Moshe, believing that G-d is going to annihilate the entire Jewish People, pleads for his people, rhetorically asking G-d if it is fair to punish an entire nation because of the sins of one person. G-d tells Moshe that He wasn’t talking about that community – He was talking about Korach’s community. After clearing up that little misunderstanding, G-d does what He was planning to do the entire time and He annihilates Korach and his band of merry men.
If you think that this explanation does not make sense, you are not the only one. This explanation was first proposed by Rabbi Chananel ben Chushiel, better known as Rabbeinu Chananel, who lived in the eleventh century in what is now Tunisia. Rabbeinu Chananel’s explanation is thoroughly repudiated by Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, better known as the Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel about one hundred years after Rabbeinu Chananel. The Ramban brings three reasons to invalidate Rabbeinu Chanael’s hypothesis. The first two reasons are grammatical in nature but the last one is a punch in the gut: How could anyone imply that Moshe so badly misinterpreted G-d? Wasn’t Moshe the greatest prophet of all time? Why, G-d Himself attested that He speaks with Moshe [Bemidbar 12:8] “Mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of G-d”. It is inconceivable that Moshe would make such a sophomoric prophetical error. The Ramban offers an alternate explanation. He asserts that during the initial stages of the uprising, Korach did not have significant popular support. He was sort of a cult figure. As time went on, however, he gained sufficient popularity that he could gather “the entire community” at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. According to the Ramban, G-d was concerned that Korach would continue to garner mainstream support and so He elected to kill all of the people who were standing there at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting: “They [all] became liable to destruction because they cast aspersions on their teacher, which is like casting aspersions on the Divine Presence”. Moshe prayed to G-d to spare these people and so He did.
The Ramban’s explanation only makes the exchange between Moshe and G-d slightly more plausible. According to the Ramban, G-d tells Moshe that He is going to annihilate Korach and his followers and whoever happens to be standing with them at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Moshe tells G-d that He cannot kill the innocent along with the guilty. What did Moshe think G-d was going to do? Did he really think that he was being innovative by telling G-d that He should not punish people for sins that they did not commit? The Torah writes [Devarim 24:16] “A person will die for his own sin”. Did Moshe think that G-d was going to slap Himself on His Divine Forehead and say, “Whoops, I forgot about that!”
There is one more issue that must be addressed. After Moshe pleads with G-d not to punish the many for the sins of the few, G-d tells everyone to step back, saying “Withdraw (suru na) from about the abodes of Korach, Datan, and Aviram”. This translation of the Torah is omitting a critical word. The word “na” means “please”, such that the verse should actually be translated as “Please withdraw…” The word “please” seems entirely out of place. G-d is giving the people a warning: You are committing a grave sin and if you do not immediately cease and desist, you will die. Saying “please” seems somewhat gratuitous.
We should point out that there is only one other instance in the Torah in which the words “suru na” are used. G-d sends two angels to Sodom to destroy the town and to save Abraham’s nephew, Lot, who happens to live there. Lot sees the angels enter town and sensing that they are not ordinary people, he tells them [Bereishit 19:2] “Please, my lords, turn aside (suru na) to your servant’s house to spend the night, and bathe your feet; then you may be on your way early”. The word “suru” comes from the word “la’sur”. Lot is asking the angels not to continue down the path that they are on but to make a detour – to recalculate their route – and to join him in his home.
Now we can tie things together. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, who led North American Modern Orthodox Jewry in the second half of the previous century, explains that the word “edah”, translated heretofore as “community”, comes from the word “edut” – testimony. An “edah” is a community of people who are bound together by a certain dogma. The community of the Jewish People are bound together by the belief in an all-powerful Being Who gave them His Torah at Sinai. Korach’s community was bound together by hatred, ego, and demagoguery. Korach had one goal: to wrest the leadership from Moshe and Aaron. According to our Sages in the Midrash, Korach spoke in half-truths and promised his supporters the heavens and the earth but he never explicitly committed a sin. In fact, he is recorded in the Torah only once [Bemidbar 16:3]: “The entire community is holy with G-d in their midst – why do you elevate yourselves over G-d’s congregation?” And yet Korach was perhaps the most dangerous person in all of the Torah. When Moshe asks, “When one person sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community”, it is an exclamation and not a prayer. Moshe is stunned by the sheer power of Korach’s demagoguery, by how quickly and how deeply it divided a nation. Demagoguery cannot be forcefully fought – force only feeds its fire. The people needed to wilfully fight their own inertia and change their own trajectory. The choice to leave Korach had to be theirs. Moshe’s plea to his community works and they heed his words [Bemidbar 16:27] “So [the people] withdrew from the abodes of Korach”. Not because they were forced to but because they were asked to. If Korach did anything positive, it was teaching that the creation of a community that bears an eternal message must be – can only be – through attraction and not through repulsion.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, and Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah.
 Actually, proof can be brought for the explanation of Rabbeinu Chananel from scripture. The “key word” – defined as a word that is repeated more than its fair share in a given episode – in the story of Korach’s uprising is the word “edah”, translated here as “community”. The word “edah” appears in this episode in one form or another no less than eleven times. In this episode, “edah” appears in one of two forms: One form is the generic “edah” – “The Community”. The second form is the specific “adat” – the “The Community of …” Every time scripture uses the generic version of edah, it is referring to the Jewish People as a whole and every time it uses the specific version of the word, it is referring to Korach’s community, i.e. Korach and his rebellious followers. And so when G-d says that He is going to annihilate “this community (ha’eda ha’zot)”, it is unclear if He is referring to the community of Korach or to the Jewish People. As G-d had used this exact same phrase previously when He punished the Jewish People after the sin of the spies [Bemidbar 14:27], Moshe would have been justified in concluding that G-d was referring not to Korach’s community but to the entire Jewish community.
 The Ramban then segues into a fascinating discussion that accuses the Jewish People who lived in the time of King David of sinning in not building the Holy Temple (“Beit HaMikdash”). Recommended reading.
 My son, Rabbi Amichai Sacher, tells me that this is precisely what Moshe thought. Shiur over.
 The reader should feel free to take this jumping off point wherever it takes him.