- Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
What exactly did the people imply in this terse, emotional refrain? The commentators provide a plethora of explanations for it, likely because its meaning is so mysterious, for nowhere do we find in Parshas Korach that anyone died for approaching the Mishkan.
Rashi, connecting the quote under discussion to the next topic in the parsha, explains that B'nei Yisroel were pleading with Moshe Rabbeinu to address the problem of people entering the Mishkan without permission, for there was unlimited access to the Mishkan's Chatzer (Courtyard), and there was concern that Zarim (non-Kohanim) who were in the Chatzer may enter the Mishkan itself, which is a very severe aveirah (transgression). Hashem responded forthright to this plea in the next few pesukim, wherein the mitzva of Shemiras Ha-Mishkan (Guarding the Mishkan) was commanded. (18:1-7)
Perhaps another explanation of the people's plea to Moshe can be offered so as to view it from the perspective of prior events in Parshas Korach. It may be suggested that the people were concerned that another uprising such as that of Korach not occur again. In the interest of preventing a recurrence, they pointed out that Korach had the audacity to vie with Aharon for the Kehuna Gedola (High Priesthood) because Korach had the ability to promulgate the erroneous perception that the Kehuna Gedola was an office of power, akin to a political office, and that he therefore had the right to campaign to seize it. Although the Kehuna Gedola embodied Avoda (sacrificial service) in the Mishkan, and Avoda was surely not a governmental or political endeavor, it was implied to Moshe that the people's perception of the Mishkan and its Avoda needed reinforcement; only if everyone felt that the Mishkan and the positions of its appointed personnel were untouchable would the likes of Korach not start up again. Otherwise, there would always be a likelihood that others may "approach the Mishkan" and die; that is, unless something would be done to change the status quo, there may in the future arise other individuals seeking to usurp power in the Mishkan, and these individuals and their followings would perish in the same manner as Korach and his group. God responded to this plea by enacting the mitzva of Shemiras Ha-Mishkan, such that an honor-guard would be stationed around the Mishkan in order to augment its image of prestige and to greater glorify its perception by the masses. (See Sefer Ha-Chinuch m. 388.) Although the inner, most holy workings of the Mishkan were known, its external perception by the masses needed to be enhanced, and this enhanced perception would discourage future attempts to usurp the Kehuna Gedola or other such actions that could be countenanced by those who saw the Mishkan as the headquarters of power, rather than being constantly awed and humbled by its radiant sense of purity and kedusha, as attested to and proclaimed by Shemiras Ha-Mishkan.
In a similar vein do we find that the Melech (King) must exhibit an extreme of external honor, such that he may not perform Chalitza, his ex-wife may not marry another man, and - when a family member dies - the Melech may not leave his palace to escort the casket through the streets; similarly, the Melech must have his hair cut daily, and he may not stand in public before anyone. (Rambam Hilchos Melachim 2:3-5) These halachos are all geared to instill in the public a sense of awe toward the position of the Melech. (ibid., hal. 1) At the same time, the Melech must be exceedingly humble, speaking softly to the public, while being very merciful and patient. (ibid., hal. 6). We further read how the daily table of Rebbe (Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi) was provisioned like the table of a king, yet Rebbe did not personally partake of these or any other luxuries. It is interestingly related that the Belzer Rebbe in pre-WW I Poland traveled in quite a regal manner (in an exquisite wagon drawn by white horses, or something of the sort), yet he filled his shoes with dirt in order to not experience personal comfort. These examples demonstrate how the dignity and glory of Torah authority must be publicly presented to the masses, for an image of utmost respect and awe needs to be instilled, while at the same time the loving, non-materialistic, humility of a Torah personality resides within. In order to prevent the likes of Korach from again arising by enabling one to approach the Mishkan without the requisite awe (treating it as a political headquarters rather than as the holiest locus on earth, as did Korach), and in order to preserve and augment the public's perception of Torah leadership, certain steps must always be taken.
Many mitzvos of the Kohanim and Levi'im, including Shemiras Ha-Mishkan, Ma'aser and Terumas Ma'aser, appear at the end of Parshas Korach. These mitzvos are introduced with what appears to be a warning. 'And Hashem said to Aharon: You and your sons and the house of your father with you shall bear the iniquity of the Holy Place...and of your Kehuna.' (18:1) The parsha likewise concludes the special mitzvos of Kohanim and Levi'im, in reference to Terumas Ma'aser, with similar phraseology: "And you shall not bear iniquity for it when you separate its fat from it, and you shall not defile the holy things of B'nei Yisroel..." (Ibid. v. 31)
Perhaps the message is to emphasize - in contrast to Korach's conception - that the privileged positions of Kehuna and Leviya (Levite status) are essentially positions of responsibility, rather than positions of personal prestige. Whereas Korach sought the Kehuna Gedola for his personal gain or honor, the Torah proclaims that such an idea is totally off-base. These elevated positions represent God's service, and they primarily bear responsibility and accountability rather than personal indulgence and clout. It is for this reason that the special mitzvos of Kohanim and Levi'im are bracketed by warnings.
Korach felt that Jewish leadership was an opportunity for selfish means; the Torah advises that true Jewish leadership is a yoke, whose glory and honor are really reflective of the ultimate and only true honor and glory - those of Hashem.