Korach’s contention against Moses was a watershed event in the leadership in the Israelite nation in the wilderness. His campaign created a rivalry which is not uncommon in any typical political scene but was highly unusual in the context of the Israelite leadership.
Korach felt sidelined by Moses. He was overlooked in the appointment of the Levite tribal leader, which saw his younger cousin Elitzafan selected for the role. This slight drove him to initiate a full rebellion against Moses and all of his selected leadership, with the highest role, that of High Priesthood, at stake.
The whole episode illustrates to us how a small spark can ignite a massive inferno. Korach did not initially aspire for the High Priesthood. It was only when he was rejected as a candidate for a lower role that he threw in his hat for the higher role. At its core, however, the contention challenged something more basic in the political structure of the wilderness leadership. Unlike later periods, in which the nation had some role in choosing whether they should have a leader or whom to follow, in this period the appointments came directly and exclusively from God. Moses was assigned his mandate while he was still in Midian. He was to lead the people out of Egypt and through their development as a new nation. Aaron was to be his spokesperson. When the Mishkan was set to be built God’s instructions were to appoint Aaron to be the chief of priests and to conduct all Temple services. There were no personal selections or appointments subject to elective input.
The basis of Korach’s challenge was that the appointments were personal. He contended that Moses was not merely following God’s orders but was selecting people of his own choosing. This was a challenge against the fundamental structure of the leadership. It was a personal attack against Moses. This is why Moses had to invoke a special miraculous demise for Korach to demonstrate that he had Divine backing for everything he did.
On the surface this was a dispute between individuals in the upper echelons of leadership. It didn’t come from the common people and it appeared not to overly affect them. But it did. Once the claim was made that Moses was acting on his own hunger for power the seed of doubt was planted in the minds of onlookers. Even the special creation of a hole in the earth did not erase this thought. How then did they overcome this doubt?
Rabbi S. R. Hirsch explains that this doubt was erased during the subsequent plague that swept through the nation. Thousands were dying and it seemed unstoppable. Aaron seized a pan of incense and effectively blocked the plague from spreading further, extinguishing it for good. With that action he burned into the hearts of the people that there was no personal motive in his appointment. One would expect that he would be consumed with his campaign to garner support for his position. He was supposed to dig in his heels to show that he was right! But his actions here displayed that he had no interest in the dispute. His only objective was to help the people, to save them in times of distress and to maintain and nurture on a regular basis their relationship with God. When everything else was up in the air the sacrifices of Aaron established a solid and precious reminder that he wasn’t in it for himself.
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