We all know the story of Korach: Korach leads a rebellion which ends when the rebels are swallowed up by the earth. With that kind of vivid imagery, it is an unforgettable story.
Except, of course, even the above simplification is wrong. Most people don’t think about it, but what is incredible about the story is that all the things G-d and Moshe do to quell the rebellion, including killing Korach himself, don’t actually end the rebellion at all! On the contrary: killing Korach unites the remainder of the Jewish people against Moshe and Aaron!
The Parsha starts with
“And [Korach, Dathan, Aviram and On] rose up before Moses, with certain of the people of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, regularly summoned to the congregation, men of renown; And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.” (Num. 16:2)
So while this rebellion has begun, it is a rebellion of leaders, or at least would-be leaders. There is no sign that it is a popular rebellion. But once G-d kills the rebels, something really peculiar happens. What had begun as an elitist complaint became a universal and popular rebellion! “ But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, You have killed the people of the Lord.” The plan has backfired: Korach’s rebellion intensified after he died!
How can this be?
The answer is found by going back to the original challenge by Korach’s group against Moshe and Aaron: “Why do you lift up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?” (Num: 16:3)
Moshe and Aaron do not answer this challenge at all! Instead, there is a bloodbath, and the challengers are killed off.
The nation of Israel is unhappy, and rightly so. Ours is a holy nation of laws, and we serve G-d. Might does not make right. Indeed, responding to a perfectly reasonable question by killing off the questioner is nothing more or less than changing the subject! And at that point, the original question, posed by a small number, was found on the lips of the entire nation of Israel: “Why do you lift up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?”
Remember that this rebellion had never been one against Hashem or His authority. It was always about the authority of the Levites as spiritual leaders, and Moshe as the political leader.
Only now, after all the killing that has taken place, Hashem steps in and decides to answer the question that started the entire story. The staffs of each tribe are gathered together and laid up in the Tent of Meeting. Aaron’s staff uniquely blossoms and bears fruit, and it is a clear sign that in fact the Levites are specially selected by G-d. Now everyone has an answer to why the Levites are special: because G-d said so. The people are satisfied, and the rebellion finally ended.
It was not clear to the Jews that the earth-swallowing was done by G-d – this was an age that believed in magic after all, and the deaths could potentially have been caused by Moshe himself. And the death of the 250 by G-d’s fire could have easily been interpreted as a holy and good way to go – and only tangentially related to the challenge. Perhaps those 250 had been taken to heaven because of the righteousness of their cause?