Korach is characterized from the beginning of the Parsha as a troublemaker. The first few words of the Parsha, “Vayikach Korach” are themselves a window into Korach’s misdirected intentions. In answering the question of what exactly Korach took, Rashi explains that Korach, “Lakach Es Atzmo L’Tzad Acher, Lehiyos Nechlak Mitoch HaEidah, L’Orer Al HaKehunah.” Korach, with focused determination, removes himself from the rest of Bnei Yisroel specifically for the purpose of casting aspersions on the Kahuna.
Korach’s band of followers is amazingly dedicated to this misguided cause. Even after Moshe orchestrates a test of Ketores in which all but Aharon are killed there is still a question as to Aharon’s place as Kohen Gadol. This after Hashem’s presence was seen to show that the judgment was divine (see 16:19 & Ohr HaChaim there)! Still it is necessary to have the pans beat into a cover for the Mizbeach to remind people of the fate of Korach (17:5).
Amazingly, immediately afterwards the uprising continues! In the very next pasuk (17:6) the people accuse Moshe and Aharon of killing Korach and his followers unjustly. The Ibn Ezra (there) says that the people still weren’t confident in the choice of Aharon as the Kohen Gadol. They said Moshe and Aharon accomplished the death by fire with Chachma or prayer. How could the people still believe this after all they had seen?
To make matters worse the people still require yet another proof of Aharon’s worthiness. A new test, to see which of the Nasiim’s staffs would sprout, is divinely commanded (17:16). The pasuk (17:24) tells us that even after they saw that only Aharon’s staff had sprouted they “took their staffs.” The Seforno explains that they all took their staffs home to make sure the special Simanim (signs) that they had each placed on their staffs were still there. Even after all they had seen and experienced they still had doubts and thought it might all be a trick.
It is truly amazing how difficult it was for the people to see that they were mistaken. What was it that caused them to be so stubborn? I think if we look at the Mishan in Pirkei Avos we can gain an insight into the problem. The Mishna (Avos 5:17) tells us:
An argument that is for the sake of Heaven in the end will endure, and that which is not for the sake of Heaven in the end will not endure.What is an argument that is for the sake of Heaven? The arguments of Hillel and Shammai. And that which is not for the sake of Heaven? The arguments of Korah and his followers.
What was the difference between Korach’s Machlokes (argument) and the Machlokes between the great Torah sages Shammai and Hillel? Shammai and Hillel, while they strongly disagreed were both looking for the same thing. Shammai and Hillel were both looking for the truth. Though on opposing sides in terms of what they felt the truth was they both strove towards a common goal. For this reason we find that sometimes they will in the end agree. Korach, however, was not looking for the truth. He did not care to strive with Moshe and Aharon to discover who was truly the most fit to be Kohen Gadol. Korach was interested only in being correct. His followers shared in his misdirected focus. The stubbornness born of such an attitude is contagious. Test after test showed Korach’s followers that they were wrong but if one is not looking for the truth, the truth can be thrust in their face to no avail1.
This can also help us understand the phrasing used in the Mishna. When the Mishan speaks of the arguments between Shammai and Hillel it mentions both sides of the Machlokes. For symmetry’s sake one would’ve expected the Mishna to say the argument not for the sake of Heaven is that of Korach and Moshe! Instead the Mishna says Korach and his followers. Hillel and Shammai were two sides of an argument but were in reality joined in their goal of searching for the truth, so they are both named as players in the argument for the sake of Heaven. In the case of Korach, he alone was focused on being right, his argument was not for the sake of Heaven. Moshe and Aharon were not part of this argument since they only sought the truth. What argument isn’t a proper one? The argument of Korach and his followers, who were so singularly focused on being right that truth had no place in their camp. May we all be Zoche to search for and find the truth in our learning and lives, and never be held back by a selfish need to be right.
1. See Jim Collins book, “How the Mighty Fall” where he examines why some great companies fail. He attributes it to a culture where one of the markers is “Team members argue to look smart or to improve their own interests rather than argue to find the best answers to support the overall cause (pg. 77).”