As a teenager, I had a very difficult relationship with my mother. We couldn't seem to talk to each other without arguments that devolved into yelling, and they often ended with slammed doors. My dad, a professor of rhetoric and argumentation, gently tried to help me understand that there were different ways I could speak to my mother that might yield different results. As a teenager, I wasn't very interested in this feedback, but I think Korach, Datan, and Abiram would have benefited from it in this week's Torah portion.
In Korach, there is a challenge to the leadership of Moses and Aaron. It appears that what follows is the typical Israelites complaining formula that can be found throughout the book of Numbers and the Israelites' time in the wilderness. The people complain, often hearkening back to better days in Egypt and lamenting that they left Egypt only to die in the wilderness. God gets angry and threatens to annihilate the people. Moses and Aaron intercede on the people's behalf, and God tempers the decree, but it is usually still severe.
One difference that can be found in this week's portion is that usually the complaints from the Israelites are voiced by the people as a collective. This portion's affront is more organized and subversive. Korach, with Datan, Abiram, and 250 Israelite chieftains, accuse Moses and Aaron of "raising themselves above the congregation." (Numbers 16:3). So unlike complaints about lack of food or water, this is a direct challenge to the leadership of Moses and Aaron.
From here the formula seems to continue with God getting angry, and Moses and Aaron together interceding on the people's behalf. There is a lesser punishment (not total annihilation), but it is still severe. There is a plague, and fire, and those who banded with Korach, Datan, and Abiram are killed.
This begs the question: what was so wrong about what Korach and his followers did? After all, the claims Korach makes, that all the community is holy and God dwells amongst them, are true. However, reading this section, I can't help but hear in Korach the insolent teenager of my youth. The words Korach uses are intentional and parallel words that Moses has been instructed by God to relay to the Israelites. Compare:
Korach: For all the community are holy. (Numbers 16:3)
God to Moses: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy for I, your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)
Korach: And God is in their midst. (Numbers 16:3)
God to Moses: And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)
Not only is Korach challenging Moses' leadership, but he is also using God's words to do it. This provokes both Moses and God.
And what about Datan and Abiram? They refuse to even meet with Moses, responding to the invitation with "We will not come" (Numbers 16:12).
The rabbis of the Mishnah and later commentators agree that the way the arguments unfold in the Torah portion is directly connected to the harsh punishment.
After Datan and Abiram announce their public refusal to see Moses, Moses is displeased (Numbers 16:15). Midrash Tanchuma explores this:
Moses was very displeased. To what can this be compared; to one who debates and argues with their colleague. If their colleague replies to them - they are pleased, if they do not reply, they are deeply annoyed. ( Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 6)
Along these lines, Pirkei Avot defines two different types of disputes or arguments, those that are for the sake of Heaven (those that involve both sides striving to establish the truth), understood to be constructive conflict and therefore encouraged, and those that aren't:
Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korach and all his congregation. (Pirkei Avot 5:17)
This text, and its subsequent interpretation, highlights another reason for Korach's punishment. In addition to how Korach and his company argued with Moses and Aaron, we ought to look at the purpose of the argument. Bartenura, a commentator in the 1500s, differentiates that Hillel and Shammai argued with the purpose and aim of arriving at the truth. In contrast, Korach and his congregation's aim was honor and power. (Bartenura on Pirkei Avot 5:17:1)
While Bartenura does not spell out exactly how we know that this was Korach's goal, if we return to the Torah portion, we note that Korach was from the tribe of Levi and Datan and Abiram from the tribe of Reuben. Ibn Ezra surmises that both groups were unhappy with their lot - the Levites needing to serve the priests and the Reubenites denied their birthright. So even before a word was spoken, there was a basis for historical animosity. Couple this with the provocative words of Korach and the refusal of Datan and Abiram to engage, and a clearer picture is painted of why in fact this was not a dispute for the sake of heaven.
The takeaway? One could read this portion and think that the Torah is condemning challenges to power in favor of blind acceptance. I think this misses the point. Korach and his followers' failure was both how they approached the disagreement, and their motivation and goal. Just like my dad tried to teach me, the way that we engage in a disagreement, for example using a calm voice rather than my teenage screaming, will often provide more favorable results. And being honest about our goals will have a huge impact too. I can only imagine how my adolescence would have been different if my goal had been peace in the home rather than being right! The words we say matter, and so does how and why we say them.