Rust consumes iron and envy consumes itself. -Danish proverb
Korach, Moses’ first cousin, also from the tribe of Levi, was a great man in his own right. He was an elder, a knowledgeable sage, a gifted orator, wealthy beyond measure, touched by prophecy and a natural leader of men.
So, the question is, why did honored and prominent Korach unite with veteran troublemakers Datan and Aviram, raise a conspiracy of 250 other leaders of Israel and incite a doomed rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron?
The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 16:1 deepens the question by referencing a Midrash that states that God intended for Korach to be the titular leader of the Levites, in parallel to Aaron’s leadership of the Kohens. Indeed, there was nobody else at Korach’s level from amongst the other Levites for such a prominent position. Korach himself was cognizant of his exalted level, which may have been the beginning of his downfall.
According to the Chidushei HaRim, Korach’s ruin came about from two related emotions: envy and arrogance. He became envious of another prominent cousin, Elizafan son of Uziel who had been given an important honor. That little seed of jealousy grew and corrupted the previously righteous sage until he was blinded by it. He was so blinded that it inflated his arrogance to a level that he started to throw baseless accusations against Moses. His envy, his arrogance and the resulting blindness were so complete, that he couldn’t appreciate that he was attacking the man who was directly and expressly chosen by God to lead the nation, the man whom God declared was the humblest of all men.
God’s reaction is severe and immediate, and Korach’s ruin is complete and permanent.
The 250 leaders who supported Korach are consumed by a heavenly fire when they recreate part of the Tabernacle service. Korach’s allies, Datan and Aviram, all their household and possessions are swallowed up by a miraculously opened earth. It’s not clear from the verses, which of the two dooms falls upon Korach personally. Some commentaries explain that both immolation by divine fire and getting swallowed by the earth occurred to Korach simultaneously for a particularly dramatic death for a formally great man.
While the cliché “the greater they are, the harder they fall,” could very well be associated with Korach, his story is also a warning to all, no matter how low or high, of the dangers of the twin emotions of self-destruction: envy and arrogance. May we steer clear of both.
To the memory of Rabbanit Tova Rhein z”l.