the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
“The man whom the Lord chooses” (Num. 16:7)
The Midrasha for Women
When did the dispute of Korah and his followers break out? What was the setting and what significance was there to the timing? The order of the Torah as we have it puts this week’s reading after the spies had been sent out and returned. According to Abraham Ibn Ezra, however, the dispute arose much earlier, when the role of first-born was given to the tribe of Levi (16:1):
This happened in the wilderness of Sinai, when the first-borns were replaced and the Levites were set apart; for the Israelites thought that Moses had done so of his own accord, in order to aggrandize his brother and his relations, the sons of Kohath, and all the Levites, who were from his family.
The decision that the Levites would replace the first-borns had been made immediately after the sin of the golden calf (Deut. 10:8), but was not put into practice until the dedication of the Tabernacle. The sign that was performed with the staff showed that the Levites, and not the first-borns, were the chosen ones. The assertion, “All the community are holy, all of them” (Num. 16:3) is a statement claiming rights for the first-borns, as it is written, “Consecrate to Me every first-born,” Ex. 13:2. This is proof, in Ibn Ezra’s opinion, that the bone of contention was the issue of the first-borns. Further, says Ibn Ezra, all those who conspired against Moses had a common theme:
The Levites conspired against him [Moses], since they had been given to Aaron and his sons. As for Dathan and Abiram, the rights of first-born had been removed from their forefather Reuben and given to Joseph (I Chron. 5:1-2), so now they may have been suspicious of him on account of his servant Joshua. Korah was also a first-born, for it is written: “On the south: the standard of the division of Reuben (Num. ), and Korah was on the south of the Tabernacle, because he was among the sons of Kohath” (Num. ). And the chieftains of the community were first-borns; they were the ones who had been bringing the offerings and therefore they took the incense pans.
Each of the figures mentioned in the uprising – Korah, Dathan and Abiram, and the chieftains – had a personal or family interest which they wished to advance. The pretext for the controversy was the demand that the sacred worship be restored to the first-borns, as it had been prior to the inauguration of the Tabernacle.
Nahmanides’ commentary on this passage takes issue with Ibn Ezra’s approach. First, he disputes the idea that the rift took place long before. He rejects the notion that the Torah is not in chronological order, except when there is a specific reason to deviate.  In his opinion, for the most part the order of events as recorded in the Torah follows the order in which they occurred, and therefore, “This occurred in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh Barnea, after the episode of the spies.” Nahmanides also maintains that each of the parties to the controversy had a different interest and a separate claim against Moses:
Korah was angry about Elizaphan being made chieftain, as our Sages said (Tanhuma, Korah, 1), and he was also jealous of Aaron, as it is said, “do you seek the priesthood too?” (Num. 16:10). Dathan and Abiram were drawn along with him, not over the issue of first-borns, for it was their ancestor Jacob who had taken the rights of the first-born from Reuben and given it to Joseph; but they too joined in the argument, [accusing Moses because he had taken the people out of a land flowing with milk and honey] “to have us die in the wilderness” (Num. 16:13), and had not “brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey” (Num. 16:14)… Most likely all of those [the 250 chieftains] who rallied in opposition were first-borns, and therefore were resentful about the priesthood.
Nahmanides was alluding to a midrash first cited by Rashi, about Korah’s contentions regarding his rights according to the order of the sons in the family. Korah argued that Amram, his father’s brother, had two sons – Moses and Aaron; Moses was king, and Aaron high priest. Izhar, Amram’s other brother, had three sons of whom he, Korah, was the eldest. Elizaphan, who was appointed chieftain of the Kohatites (Num. ), was the second son of the youngest brother, and therefore Korah had precedence over him.
Nahmanides’ contribution to this Midrash cited by Rashi is his suggestion Korah and his followers succeeded in inciting the people precisely at this moment, after the sending of the spies. Even though Moses had appointed Elizaphan chieftain of the Kohatites several months earlier, as long as Moses stood by the people and prayed for them, as he had done after the sin of the golden calf, the people loved him and would not come out against him. But after the people had been consumed by fire at Taberah and many had died at Kibroth-hattaavah, and after they had been punished for the sin of the spies by not being allowed to enter the land, “then the entire people were embittered and saying to themselves that mishaps would come their way from Moses. Then Korah found an opening to take exception to what he was doing and thought that the people would listen to him… This is the reason for their complaint coming at this time, immediately after the punishment given on account of the spies.”
According to Nahmanides, bitterness towards Moses had been festering in Korah for some time, and only when it appeared that Moses was not defending the people did Korah seize the opportunity. He promoted his own person interests and enlisted Dathan and Abiram and the chieftains, who all had their own motives, in order to incite rebellion against Moses.
The question remains, what made Korah open the controversy precisely at that moment and not wait longer? What apparently bothered Korah was the question, who would be the person that G-d would choose as sanctified to draw close to Him? Who would stand before the people on the first Day of Atonement to be celebrated in the Tabernacle? The Tabernacle had been dedicated on the first of Nisan that year, and after the death of Aaron’s sons the commandment regarding the worship on the Day of Atonement was given. Would it be Aaron and his sons, or would it be others? Would it be Korah, who considered himself the highest ranking of the sons of Kohath, or would it be someone from the tribe of Reuben, Jacob’s first-born, or one of the first-borns of the day – the chieftains?
The answer to these questions was the incense test. Incense was chosen precisely because it was central to the service of the high priest on the Day of Atonement. In this story at hand Moses said to them: “put fire in them and lay incense on them before the Lord” (Num. 16:7); and with respect to the Day of Atonement it was said: “He shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord” (Lev. ).
The ruinous result, the fire that came out and consumed the chieftains who had offered the incense, teaches us that worship of the Lord, in all its aspects, must be done solely by the priests, descendants of Levi, who were explicitly chosen for this service. It is they who are to “offer You incense to savor and whole-offerings on Your altar” (Deut. 33:10), they and no one else. True, Korah was also a grandson of Kohath son of Levi, but G-d had previously warned Moses and Aaron especially that each of Kohath’s sons would have a well-defined task (Num. -20):
The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: Do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off from the Levites. Do this with them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects: let Aaron and his sons go in and assign each of them to his duties and to his porterage. But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die.
No changes were to be made in the assignments of sacred service, and each person had to perform the task assigned him. Korah may have been extremely wise and among those assigned to carry the ark (see Numbers Rabbah 18.3), and even the senior of all the Levite sons ( Zohar 3, Tazria 49.1), but each of the Levites from the sons of Kohath had been chosen divinely for his task. Elizaphan had been appointed by Moses according to the divine word (Rashi on Numbers 16:1). Therefore, after the death of Korah and his followers the Torah recapitulates the command: “They shall discharge their duties to you and to the Tent as a whole, but they must not have any contact with the furnishings of the Shrine or with the altar, lest both they and you die” (Num. 18:3). “What does the Torah seek to teach us by saying ‘both they and you’? Since Korah had come and challenged Aaron, Scripture cautioned him about the entire matter” (Sifre on Numbers, par. 116, s.v. ve-shameru mishmartekha). It turns out that even within the tribe of Levi there were different gradations of sanctity, and these were not dependent merely on one’s rights according to family status.
This is explained as follows by Rabbi Meir Simhah ha-Cohen of Dvinsk, in his commentary Meshekh Hokhmah ():
The point is that the mistake made by Korah and his followers was in thinking that the priesthood was not a matter of choseness, belonging by nature to the offspring of Aaron; but rather that it was only on account of their talents that they were found pleasing for their qualities. If so, in such days as when the priests sin or the Israelites are more sanctified than the priests, they deserve the priesthood… Therefore He showed them that Aaron’s superiority was natural and chosen, like the superiority of the Israelites, whom the Lord vowed never to replace with another.
 Nahmanides is consistent on this throughout his commentary on the Torah. See for example Ex. 4:19, 18:1, 24:1, Lev. 8:2. Presumably Ibn Ezra did not mean to say that the controversy erupted when the first-borns were replaced, but rather meant to point to the motives and setting for the uprising, which itself might have taken place later.