Korach and his followers attack Moshe and Aharon, accusing them of misappropriating the leadership for themselves, when, in reality, “the entire community, all of them are holy.” Moshe does not respond with a refutation, but rather Moshe heard, and he fell upon his face. Aharon, too, does not directly respond. Instead, Moshe challenges Korach and the 250 princes of the community who joined the rebellion to perform the priestly ketoret service, and allow Hashem to publicly acknowledge the priest of His choosing.
Why is Korach wrong? Are the people not all holy? And why does neither Moshe nor Aharon point out the rebels’ error?
Moshe heard. He understood the motive of the claims made against him. It was a denial of the Divine basis of his mission, born in the seething jealousy of one Korach. Had they arrived at this opinion by way of erroneous thinking it would have been possible to correct their error. But because it was the outcome of jealousy and honor-seeking, and amounted to dazzling sophisms to galvanize the masses through flattery, no direct response could have been successful.
While it is true that the people are men of a holy calling (Shemot 22:3), and were commanded to live up to this holy calling and be holy (Vayikra 19:2), they were not yet holy. The people were sanctified to Hashem, and are charged to uplift themselves to their holy calling. That is their destiny, but it was not yet their reality. In fact, the entire structure of the camp of Israel — its rank divisions of Israelites, Levites, Kohanim, and the Sanctuary fenced off in the center — was to serve as a reminder that holiness is a goal to be sought, not a laurel to rest on.
When it comes to matters originated or done by the people, there is a need for elected representatives, men of outstanding character. But when the initiative does not lie with the people or in any human sphere, the choice is Hashem’s alone. The brazenness of one who would direct Hashem to “choose this one and no other” cannot be overstated. An authentic messenger of Hashem, by contrast, is the first to admit that he is unworthy of the task. It was only after protesting his worthiness that Moshe was appointed.
The truth of Divine appointment cannot be confirmed by reasoning; the authenticity of Moshe’s mission can be confirmed only by Hashem Himself. For this reason, neither Moshe nor Aharon utter a word to counter Korach’s accusations. Neither one will defend his office and honor, because neither one thought himself worthy of it. To try explaining that the people are not yet holy, but are called on to be holy, would be a futile attempt to defuse arguments born of raging jealousy. And if Hashem Himself would not confirm Moshe’s appointment and mission, then indeed, his mission is over — he falls on his face.
In the end, the rebels and the rest of the people learn the lesson well. The rebels meet their end through miraculous intervention foretold by Moshe, teaching the people that Moshe’s mission, too, is a product of Divine intervention.
- Source: Commentary, Bamidbar 16:3-4