Korah’s uprising is ostensibly based on an accusation that Moses and Aaron unfairly enjoy a position of privilege, along with an allegation that this position enabled personal gain at the expense of the congregation.
Moses rebuffs this, pointing out the hypocrisy that, like Aaron and himself, Korah was a member of the tribe of Levi, set aside to oversee the spiritual balance of the entire people. Ousting one “privileged” Levite for another would therefore solve nothing.
As for the allegation of personal embezzlement, Moses reaffirms that he had not taken “even a single donkey” (16:15), while Levites were proscribed from owning land in biblical Israel. Rather, Moses concludes, this is righteous indignation disguising delusion.
Our sages puzzle over the commandment to take the materials emblematic of rebellion and forge them into a new cover for one of the holiest items in the Sanctuary. Read simply, the cover would remind the Israelites not to bring offerings that were uncalled for.
But this seemingly sidesteps the more urgent issue: isn’t a reminder needed as a warning against outright rebellion, as opposed to individuals bringing untimely sacrifices?
Unless there was something about the rebellion itself worth remembering. The poet Khalil Gibran wrote: “Rebellion without truth is like spring in a bleak, arid desert”. But Korah’s followers were not entirely without truth.
Here, Nachmanides offers a beautiful approach: even though their argument was illogical and outrage misplaced, Korah’s rebel alliance approached the altar with pans scorched by the flames of mutiny, but fitting nonetheless to be remade anew. Deep down, they anticipated a positive response from Heaven, and wanted to dedicate the pans not as plaques and trophies in a temple to their own cunning, but to God — for use in His Temple eternally.
Where is this pure intention hinted to? At the earliest moment of their rebellion, when it seems that they are campaigning for the nation to be entirely leaderless: “For the entire congregation is holy, and Hashem is among them.”
This part is true, and it deserves to be remembered; an enduring reminder that God is indeed among us, by virtue of which we are all imbued with a uniqueness that cannot be mimicked and therefore resents being controlled.
Sometimes, the urge to rebel against authority is simply this: our innermost distinctiveness struggling to assert itself. So, we can rebel, or we can channel that distinctiveness toward supporting people or causes whose situations we might be uniquely positioned to help.
The choice is ours.