Parshas Korach deals with the story of a group of people, led by Korach, who rebel against Moshe Rabbeinu. Korach’s complaint was that a nation like Bnei Yisrael where each person was considered holy, did not need to be led by one person. Neither did they feel that it was right that only one person could be the Kohen Gadol, since the entire nation was on a high enough level that they could enter the Kodesh Hakedoshim (Holy of Holies) like Aharon HaKohen did. Korach was wrong, but even if he was right, the Mishnah in Avos (5:20) tells us that Korach’s argument was שלא לשם שמיים, not for the sake of Hashem, but rather for his own personal glory.
In order to show that he was acting only on Hashem’s wishes, Moshe tells Korach that he and each of his men should prepare a Ketores (incense) offering to be brought the next day, and that Hashem will accept the one of the correct party. That night, the pasuk tells us, “וַיַּקְהֵל עֲלֵיהֶם קֹרַח אֶת כָּל הָעֵדָה” “Korach assembled the entire congregation against them” (Bamidbar 16:19). Directly after that, Hashem tells Moshe and Aharon, “הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם כְּרָגַע” “Dissociate yourselves from this congregation, and I will consume them in an instant” (16:21). Moshe and Aharon then daven to Hashem that He should spare the group since why should many be killed for the sins of one man. Who is this congregation that we are referring to in both pesukim? If it is Korach’s congregation, then why do Moshe and Aharon ask they not be killed when they know they will be killed the next day for bringing a Ketores, for which the punishment of an undeserving person bringing one is death? And if it is referring to the rest of the nation that until this point was not involved in Korach’s dispute, they have not yet done anything wrong that would warrant their deaths!
The Ramban explains that in Pasuk 19, Korach went and spoke to the rest of the nation, not his own people. Until this point, the general public had followed Moshe, however, that night Korach went out and told them that he was leading this rebellion not for his own honor, but for the honor of the entire nation, that they should all be able to be Kohanim. He was able to convince them which resulted in the entire nation being guilty of rebelling against Hashem and not trusting in his Navi, Moshe. Because of this, Hashem was ready to destroy all of them immediately, but Moshe and Aharon were able to save them by saying, “הָאִישׁ אֶחָד יֶחֱטָא וְעַל כָּל הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף” “if one man sins, shall You be angry with the whole congregation?” (16:21).
The Kli Yakar explains that while Hashem was only referring to Korach’s group, Moshe and Aharon thought that he was referring to the entire nation! He learns this from the way they refer to Hashem in the pasuk as “אֱלֹהֵי הָרוּחֹת” which Rashi explains that this term refers to Hashem’s knowledge of the innermost thoughts of every man. Moshe and Aharon were appealing to Hashem that He did not have to punish everyone as he knew exactly which people were guilty and which ones were not, as well as the fact that the entire sin stemmed from Korach so why should everyone be punished for it.
According to this, we still have our question of why did Hashem want to kill Korach’s group now, didn’t He want to set an example the next day when they brought the Ketores? Perhaps this is because since Korach was now inciting the entire nation against Hashem. Because he was getting innocent people involved, Hashem decided to kill him now and not wait for the next day.
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