In the beginning of the parsha it says ‘And Korach, the son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, the son of Levi took; and Datan and Aviram the sons of Eliav…’ and the famous question, of course, is what exactly did he ‘take’? The Torah never continues the thought.
A second question I’d like to ask is why does the Torah – after the whole episode of Korach and his rebels is concluded (with mind-blowing natural disasters) – describe all the gifts of the Kohanim and Leviim (i.e. Terumah, Ma’aser, first-borns, etc.)? And even if you want to posit that an argument of the rebels was against the Kehuna, so the topic was already somewhat broached (even if you convince yourself that’s a good question), we already have a detailed description of these gifts in Va’Yikra; why would the Torah need to repeat information already taught, in detail, just because we were talking (indirectly!) about Kohanim? Doesn’t seem very Torah-esque.
I am going to propose an answer to the first question based on a textual analysis developed by R. Menachem Leibtag of Yeshivat Har Etzion; however, I’m going to add to it a bit and use a different conclusion to answer the first question and also use it to answer the second question which he, himself, never addressed.
Here’s the theory: there are two distinct groups, with two distinct arguments against different leaders, located in two distinct places. Group A is the 250 men and Group B is led by Datan and Aviram. And what about Korach? We shall see.
The parsha opens up with the ‘250 men standing up from amongst Bnei Yisrael…they assemble against Moshe and Aharon saying you have too much, we are Kadosh too’ (16: 2-3). Moshe responds to this group (with Korach included in the response, which we will address later) to assemble before the Ohel Moed for the test of the burning incense pans which will be the sign directly from God; for whoever receives the fire from Him for their incense will be titled the only ‘chosen’ Kohen of God. (ibid: 4-11).
So far, we have:
- 250 men,
- They want to be ‘kadosh’ (kohanim) too,
- Against (Moshe and) Aharon (special kohen),
- Standing before the Ohel Moed.
Then something interesting happens, the Torah states ‘and Moshe sent to call for Datan and Aviram but they refused to come’ (12) Where were they? Obviously they were not with the original 250 men arguing for spiritual equality because he had to specifically call them. So, what did they want? In the very next pasuk, they respond to Moshe’s call with: ‘is it not enough that you [Moshe] led us out of a land flowing with milk and honey [Egypt!] to have us die in the desert, you also want to rule over us [commanding us to see you]? (13). And later, when Moshe is forewarning the neighbors of Datan and Aviram to distance themselves because of the oncoming catastrophe, the Torah says they are found in ‘the settlement of Korach, Datan and Aviram’; the name of the different area this group was found in (24). (Once again, Korach is mentioned, this time with this group – we will also address this later.)
So, now we have:
- Datan and Aviram (and followers),
- They want shared leadership,
- Against Moshe (for the leadership),
- Standing in the ‘settlement of Korach, Datan and Aviram’.
The Torah then flips back and forth between the differing actions of the two groups, further solidifying the idea of two, distinct groupings’ actions happening simultaneously. What were the final punishments? If there were two groups, there had to be two punishments fitting for each group’s transgression: for the 250, the fire comes down and instead of choosing the ‘special’ one, it eliminates all the competition (same result, more carnage) – consuming all the ‘250 bringers of the incense’ (35). This is a most perfect punishment for their specific ‘criminal’ dispute, for there is precedent for fire coming down and burning up people that were forbidden to bring incense – Nadav and Avihu! And what does God tell Moshe (to tell Elaazar) to do with these sinners’ pans? Bang them into plate for the Mizbeach ‘as a remembrance for all Bnei Yisrael so that anyone not from the lineage of Aharon will not burn incense to God’! (17: 5) And this was the exact status the 250 were trying to artificially attain – to be accepted as ‘lineage of Aharon,’ to be kohanim too! God says no, Group A gone.
And what about Group B (Datan and Aviram et al)? Before the ground opens up, Moshe declares ‘with this you will know that God sent me to do all these things; it wasn’t from my own heart’ (16: 28). This is a direct defiance of the specific claim they were fighting for – ‘we can be leaders too! Who made you so special?’ Who did? God did. ‘And the land opened its mouth and swallowed them [Datan and Aviram] and their houses and all the people who were with Korach and all of their property’ (32). Lessoned learned, Group B gone.
Now, R. Leibtag’s idea for what Korach ‘took’ is as follows: noticing that there were definitely two distinct groups and also immediately recognizing that Korach was ‘seen’ constantly in both of them, what Korach ‘took’ was a little of everything – from both the spiritual (250 men) and leadership equality (Datam and Aviram) fights – to cement the political coup he was waging. He, the perfect politician, used both groups’ claims to further his rise to ultimate power, fighting both fights, representing both ‘ideals’.
Working off this idea, however, my approach is a bit different. What did Korach ‘take’? I would posit: it simply doesn’t matter. Whether it’s the desire to be holy (like Aharon), Group A, or whether it’s the need for leadership power (like Moshe), Group B – if he thinks he can take it he has already lost. The lesson the Torah is trying to convey through not continuing the thought of what he took is that it doesn’t matter – if he feels he can take a more important role, he is wrong. Why? Because leadership and/or unique holy status within God’s nation are all a God-given status; this was the fundamental misconception of the two groups. Group A- ‘we want to be special too!’ But Aharon was only special because God made him so; Group B- ‘we want to lead also!’ But Moshe was only the leader because God made him so! You can’t take these positions; you are given them – and no matter what the desire (Group A and/or Group B), as represented by Korach’s presence in both, if he was attempting to ‘take’ them, he had already failed.
With this understanding, we can venture an insight into the seeming arbitrariness of the Kohen and Levi rules that follow directly after this episode. The reiterated and emphasized theme of all the gifts that the Kohanim and Leviim receive (anytime the subject is mentioned – this parsha and others) is that they must receive them from Bnei Yisrael ‘because they are not allowed to own anything, for I, God, am their inheritance’. (18: 20, 23, and many others). The fundamental lesson of these gifts is that all produce, animals, first-borns are God’s (ibid: 13, 28, etc.) but He gives them to the Kohanim and Leviim because He is the one that provides for them (ibid: 8, 11, 26, etc.). In other words, the privileges of the ‘holy’ officers are not ‘taken’ as a tax, payment, and fee (like other nations’ government officials, for example) but rather are ‘given’ to them by God; they are special because God made them so (and therefore do not represent ‘officials’ of our nation but rather vessels through which Bnei Yisrael can connect with God, and vice versa) – exactly the lesson taught through the previous episode of Korach and the rebels.