Classic Questions

Why did Korach take issue with Moshe? (v. 16:1)

Rashi: This passage is beautifully expounded in the Midrash of Rabbi Tanchuma [as follows]:

What made Korach come to dispute with Moshe?

He became jealous over the leadership of Elitzafan the son of Uzi'eil, whom Moshe appointed as leader over Kehos' descendants by G‑d's word (Bamidbar 3:30).

Korach said, "My father [Yitzhar] and his brothers numbered four," as the verse states, "The sons of Kehos were [Amram, Yitzhar, Chevron and Uzi'eil]" (Shemos 6:18). Amram was the firstborn, and his two sons [Moshe and Aharon] took positions of greatness—one a king [Moshe] and one a high priest [Aharon]. Who is entitled to receive the second [position]? Is it not I, for I am the son of Yitzhar, who was the next brother after Amram? And yet, [Moshe] appointed [Uzi'eil] as leader, the youngest brother of them all! I am going to oppose him and cancel his words!"

What did he do? He went and assembled 250 men, heads of courts... He dressed them with cloaks made entirely of turquoise wool. They came and stood before Moshe and asked him, "Is a cloak made entirely of turquoise wool obligated to have tzitzis, or is it exempt?"

He replied, "It is obligated."

They began laughing at him [saying], "How is it possible that with a cloak of another color, one string of turquoise wool exempts it, and yet this one, which is made entirely of turquoise wool, does not exempt itself?"

The Rebbe's Teachings

"This Passage is Beautifully Expounded" (Rashi to v. 1)

Rashi's comment on verse 1, "This passage is beautifully expounded in the Midrash of Rabbi Tanchuma," prompts the following questions:

  1. Rashi's self-declared goal in writing his commentary is to explain the literal meaning of scripture (Rashi on Bereishis 3:8). Why, then, does he refer the reader to the Midrash, which is a non-literal text?
  2. It is prohibited to compare Torah teachings, saying that one is beautiful and the other not (Eruvin 64a). So how can Rashi write, "This passage is beautifully expounded in the Midrash of Rabbi Tanchuma"?

The Explanation

Rashi was troubled by a basic problem at the literal level: If Korach was troubled that Moshe appointed his own brother Aharon as high priest, then why did Korach make his voice heard only now, and not earlier when the appointment was made? Aharon was clearly in office before the Tabernacle was dedicated on the first of Nisan (Rashi to Vayikra 9:1), and the spies did not return until after the 9th of Av, over four months later. So why did Korach suddenly decide to rebel at this point?

Furthermore, at the literal level, Korach's argument appears to be self-contradictory. For how could he complain about the system of hierarchy ("why have you made yourselves elite over G‑d's assembly" - v. 3), when Korach himself was a member of the aristocracy, being not only a member of the Levite tribe, but furthermore, from the family of Kehos, the most elite of all Levites? His claim, if accepted, would lead to his demotion!

In response to these significant problems, Rashi writes: "This passage is beautifully expounded in the Midrash of Rabbi Tanchuma," as if to say: "There is no simple explanation here, but the Midrash of Rabbi Tanchuma is compatible here with the literal meaning of scripture." In other words, when Rashi writes that "this passage is beautifully expounded, etc.," he is not making a subjective comment that he found this particular midrash appealing. Rather, Rashi is suggesting that the Midrash Tanchuma's interpretation is perfectly compatible1 here at the literal level.

Rashi then proceeds to cite the Midrash Tanchuma's interpretation, that Korach was upset by Moshe's appointment of Uzi'eil as the head of Kehos' descendants, as this explains why: a.) Korach's complaint arose well after the Tabernacle was erected, after Uzi'eil was appointed; and b.) Why Korach felt that he deserved an even higher position, because his father was Uzi'eil's older brother.

(Based on Sichas Shabbos Parshas Korach 5725)