The Sin of Korach's Assembly
Bamidbar, 16:5-7: He [Moses] spoke to Korach and to his entire assembly, saying, 'In the morning, HaShem will make known who is His own and who is holy, and He will bring close to Him, and whom He will choose, He will bring close to Him. Do this: Take for yourselves fire-pans - Korach and his entire assembly - and put fire in them and place incense upon them before HaShem tomorrow. Then the man HaShem will choose, he is the holy one. This is much to you, sons of Levi!'
Rashi, 16:7: sv. This is much to you, sons of Levi: 'I have told you a great [serious] matter. Were they not fools for Moshe warned them in this manner and yet they still undertook to offer [the incense]?! But they sinned with their souls...'
Joining Korach in the rebellion against Moses were two hundred and fifty great men. Rashi, quoting the Midrash Tanchuma, questions the motivations of these men in undertaking the seemingly futile rebellion against Moses. He points out that they were not foolish people, and answers that they 'sinned with their souls'. The commentaries point out that it very difficult to see how this answers the initial question of why they embarked on this rebellion. Indeed it is not clear at all what it means that 'they sinned with their souls'.
The Netsiv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, offers a fascinating explanation that answers these questions. He begins by pointing out that the two hundred and fifty men are always mentioned separately from Korach, Datan and Aviram. Moreover, they were punished differently from those three evildoers. They were punished by being burnt by a fire from the Holy of Holies whilst Korach and his cohorts suffered the far greater punishment of being swallowed alive into the ground.
The Netsiv explains that the reason for these differences is because the intentions of the two hundred and fifty men were totally different from those of Korach, Datan and Aviram. The latter were motivated by jealousy and desire for power whilst the two hundred and fifty men had essentially pure motives. They desired to attain greater closeness to God by partaking in the service of the Priests. They realized that they would die for doing this yet they were willing to give up their lives in order to attain this perceived greater 'closeness' to God. The Netsiv writes even further that they had no real claims against Moses and Aaron, rather they knew that the only way that they could have the opportunity to perform the priestly service was by joining Korach's rebellion. Because their intentions, though clearly misguided, were leshem Shamayim (pure), they were killed in a more elevated fashion, by a holy fire.(1) This explains why they embarked on this seemingly foolish endeavor and answers what Rashi means by the words, 'they sinned with their souls'. It means that they willingly went against God's will to get closer to him with the awareness that they would die as a result.(2)
It is clear from the Netsiv that despite their pure motives, the two hundred and fifty men made a terrible mistake in their desire for closeness to God. Their error was that they failed to realize that the only way to truly cleave to God is by doing His Will, not by performing actions that one thinks will bring him closer to HaShem even if they contradict the Torah. The Netsiv in Shelach writes that the approach of the two hundred and fifty men constituted a transgression of the mitzvah of 'Do not go after your heart and eyes'. He explains that this includes not creating new 'Mitzvot' or ways of connecting to God when that course of action actually constitutes a sin.(3)
How does this lesson apply to our lives? There may be times when we perceive that other people have attained positions where they can attain higher levels of spiritual achievement than ourselves. In such situations it is important to realize that whilst one should make the maximum effort in the realm of spirituality, if Providence deems that he not attain certain positions then that means he does not need to do so in order to attain closeness to God. On a more general level it reminds us of the principle that each person's relationship to God is unique and his situation and abilities are perfectly suited to enable him to maximize that relationship.
This idea is demonstrated by the following story involving two of the great Baalei Mussar: Rav Naftali Amsterdam zt"l, once told his Rebbe, Rav Yisroel Salanter: "If only I had the head of the Shaagas Aryeh,(4) the heart of the Yesod Veshoresh Ha'avodah(5) and the characteristic traits of the Rebbi (referring to Rav Yisroel himself), then I could be a good oved Hashem (server of Hashem)." Rav Yisroel responded, "Naftali, Naftali, with your head, with your heart, and with your characteristic traits you can be a true servant of God.(6) May we all merit to heed Rav Yisrael's lesson and serve HaShem in the best way possible - each one according to his unique nature.
1. Their death resembles that of Nadav and Avihu who clearly had pure motives.
2. Emek Davar, Bamidbar, 16:1.
3. Emek Davar, Bamidbar, 15:41. He explains that such actions are considered 'aveirot lishma' (sins that were committed with pure motives) and how normally it is forbidden to do such an aveiro, however there were rare occasions where great people were forced into situations where they committed aveirot lishma and were praised for it - he cites the incidents of Tamar and Yael as examples.
4. A famous Torah genius.
5. A great tzaddik who was famous for his fiery, emotional avodah (service to God).
6. From Rav Asher Balanson.