|א וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח, בֶּן-יִצְהָר בֶּן-קְהָת בֶּן-לֵוִי; וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב, וְאוֹן בֶּן-פֶּלֶת--בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן.||1 Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men;|
While the first words are וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח, it is unclear just what was taken. See Rashi, Onkelos, and other meforshim for their suggestions. I say that nothing was taken, and that וַיִּקַּח is a null verb, with no meaning, except to select those people for future action by a different verb. In this case, the וַיָּקֻמוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה in the next pasuk. Close to this idea is that וַאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם from the next pasuk are the ones being taken.
It is ridiculous to suggest multiple authorship or divergent stories (as some do) based on this disparity of singular וַיִּקַּח to plural actors. If it was just a single actor, there would be no need for a selection verb וַיִּקַּח in the first place! (Despite this, there does seem to be a blending of two rebellions, with different causes, perhaps, or perhaps not, which even took place at different times, but which are placed together for stylistic reasons.)
If all these in the first pasuk took, and not just Korach, then how come וַיִּקַּח is in the singular? This is not a problem, but is rather a feature of Biblical Hebrew, where in a list of actors, the gender and number of the first actor is taken to modify the verb. Consider from parashat Behaalotecha, Bemidbar 12:
|א וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה, עַל-אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח: כִּי-אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית, לָקָח.||1 And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.|
Certainly Aharon is not feminine, and Miriam and Aharon collectively are not singular. But Miriam was mentioned first. So too here, Korach was mentioned first, and so the masculine singular is used.
Why mention Korach's lineage, all the way to Levi, and not further? See Rashi, that family position in terms of nesiut and kehuna may be in play. From a non-midrashic perspective, we want to mention the father and the tribe, just as we mention the respective father, and tribe of Reuven, for Datan, Aviram, and On. This accounts for "ben Yitzhar" and "ben Levi". Why mention Kehat, making it into a straight lineage? Because it is awkward to say "benei Levi" for a single person, and saying "ben Levi" will make someone believe that Yitzhar was a direct son from Levi. Therefore, put in Kehat and make it into a straight lineage. No need to mention Yaakov because obviously these are Israelites we are speaking of.
Also, it is important to mention that Korach is a Levite leading Levites, in preparation for רַב-לָכֶם בְּנֵי לֵוִי in pasuk 7.
There is a famous midrash, cited by Rashi, that Korach gave the 250 men a tallis of all techeiles:
He dressed them with cloaks made entirely of blue wool. They came and stood before Moses and asked him, “Does a cloak made entirely of blue wool require fringes [’tzitzith’], or is it exempt?” He replied, “ It does require [fringes].” They began laughing at him [saying], "Is it possible that a cloak of another [colored] material, one string of blue wool exempts it [from the obligation of techeleth], and this one, which is made entirely of blue wool, should not exempt itself? - [Midrash Tanchuma Korach 2, Num. Rabbah 18:3]
So too a midrash with a question about whether a room full of sefarim needs a mezuzah. None of these are historically true. It is derech derash. The purpose is to highlight Korach's complaint, that all Israelites are holy (see pasuk 3 below), so why do Moshe and Aharon elevate themselves over everyone else?
Contrary to a suggestion I've seen, "Pelet" of On ben Pelet is not at all likely to be equal to Reuven's son Palu, despite the similarity of name and the nice parity between "ben Levi" referring (as well) to the individual son of Yaakov.
And Datan and Aviram, on a peshat level, do not recur elsewhere in Torah, despite interesting gezeira shavas that one might draw. Where it happens midrashically, it is an instance of the general midrashic Law of Conservation of Biblical Personalities. (That is, a closed-canon approach, in which any unnamed actor is one who is named elsewhere.)
I cannot account for On ben Pelet's disappearance henceforth, in both the action and punishment. I would speculate that he played a more minor role, despite being one of the leaders -- perhaps in helping organize Bnei Reuven -- and so did not directly oppose Moshe in the later action. He might have been present in the Mishkan-Korach, Datan vaAviram that was swallowed, or maybe not.
|ב וַיָּקֻמוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה, וַאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם, נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד, אַנְשֵׁי-שֵׁם.||2 and they rose up in face of Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown;|
וַיָּקֻמוּ with the sense of opposition. And mentioning their societal importance helps underscore the threat / challenge. The people could very well listen to them, and follow their direction.
Ibn Ezra is not correct in interpreting קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד as those called to the Ohel Moed.
|ג וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב-לָכֶם--כִּי כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים, וּבְתוֹכָם ה; וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ, עַל-קְהַל ה.||3 and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them: 'Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?'|
Not too much trouble, but too much greatness. You have overstepped your bounds, while you are no better than the rest of us! See Shadal for a survey of the word רב.
|ד וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-פָּנָיו.||4 And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face.|
Why does Moshe fall on his face? Is he daunted by their opposition? Is he pleading with Hashem to spare them? To not spare them? To whom does he fall on his face? I will highlight two interesting approaches.
דרך בקשה, שיניחוהו לדבר ולא יפסיקוהו, כמו למעלה י"ד ה .
If I understand him correctly, he is saying that he fell on his face before Korach and his Eidah, by way of pleading to Korach and his Eidah, so that they should hear him out. The link to the next pasuk is clear, where he addresses Korach et al.
|and fell on his face: because of the rebellion, for this was already their fourth offense. [When] they sinned with the calf, “Moses pleaded” (Exod. 32:11); by the episode of the complainers, “Moses prayed” (11:2); with the spies, “Moses said to God, ‘But the Egyptians will hear…’ ” (14:13), but now, at Korah’s rebellion, he became disheartened [literally, his hands were weakened]. This is comparable to a prince who sinned against his father, and his [father’s] friend placated the king on his behalf, once, twice, and three times. When he offended the fourth time, the friend became disheartened, and he said, “How much more can I trouble the king? Perhaps he will no longer accept my petition.” - [Midrash Tanchuma 4, Num. Rabbah 18: 6]||ויפול על פניו: מפני המחלוקת, שכבר זה בידם סרחון רביעי, חטאו בעגל (שמות לב, יא) ויחל משה, במתאוננים (במדבר יא, יב) ויתפלל משה, במרגלים (שם יד, יג) ויאמר משה אל ה' ושמעו מצרים, במחלוקתו של קרח נתרשלו ידיו. משל לבן מלך שסרח על אביו ופייס עליו אוהבו פעם ושתים ושלש, כשסרח רביעית נתרשלו ידי האוהב ההוא. אמר עד מתי אטריח על המלך, שמא לא יקבל עוד ממני:|
This is a wonderful way of framing it. He is not discouraged personally by the challenge. He knows that he is in the right. But he is worried about his flock, the Israelites, and that Hashem may not spare them after this next
This is along the lines of what Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz apparently said:
Indeed, Moshe was not personally invested in this, but tried to dissuade them from pursuing this terrible course of action.What sort of dispute was for the sake of Heaven? - the dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And which was not for the sake of Heaven? - the dispute between Korach and his entire company.Why, asked R'Yonason Eybeschutz, does the Mishnah state: ''The dispute between Korach and his entire company''? Wasn't the dispute between Korach and Moshe?From here we learn, said R'Eybeschutz, that the dispute was not between Korach and Moshe at all; rather, it was really between Korach and his assembly, as each one of them was vying for leadership and power! Moshe Rabbeinu, however, did not take up their quarrel; on the contrary, he tried his utmost to appease them so as not to carry on a dispute that would eventually lead to disastrous results.
To me, the point of this pasuk seems to be to give emotional reaction. Thus, it leads with וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה. We should interpret וַיִּפֹּל עַל-פָּנָיו, however we do, with that in mind. I would take it that he is extremely discouraged by this. We could also say that this is consultation with Hashem prior to the test he proposes in the next pasuk. I don't think he needs such consultation. (See Ibn Ezra who prefers that it is ברצונו over it being דרך נבואה.) See Ibn Caspi on the sin of Moshe, how a navi is to promise without consultation with Hashem, trusting that Hashem will bring forth the neis. But also consider falling on faces before pleading to Hashem, in pasuk 22 below.
|ה וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל-קֹרַח וְאֶל-כָּל-עֲדָתוֹ, לֵאמֹר, בֹּקֶר וְיֹדַע ה אֶת-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ וְאֶת-הַקָּדוֹשׁ, וְהִקְרִיב אֵלָיו; וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר-בּוֹ, יַקְרִיב אֵלָיו.||5 And he spoke unto Korah and unto all his company, saying: 'In the morning the LORD will show who are His, and who is holy, and will cause him to come near unto Him; even him whom He may choose will He cause to come near unto Him.|
See Rashi for an account of the repetition. But the purpose here is not to detail the test. It is to tell them that he is throwing it up to God to decide. Because, the implication is that surely God will favor Aharon.
Is Moshe setting them up for their deaths? We know that those who took the censors are punished by fire from before Hashem. If so, isn't this rather... mean?
According to Rashi (channeling midrashim), Moshe is implicitly warning them here about their fates, if they do this:
|Do this!…Take for yourselves censers: Why did he see fit to speak to them thus? He said to them, “Among the nations, there are various forms of worship and many priests, and they do not all gather in one temple. We, however, have only one God, one ark, one Torah, one altar, and one kohen gadol, but you two hundred and fifty men are all seeking the kehunah gedolah ! I too would prefer that. Here, take for yourselves the service most dear-it is the incense, more cherished than any other sacrifice, but it contains deadly poison, by which Nadab and Abihu were burnt. Therefore, he warned them, ”and it will be the one whom the Lord chooses-he is the holy one“ [meaning,] that he is already in his [state of] holiness. Is it not obvious that [the one] who is chosen is the holy one? Rather, Moses told them,”I am telling you this so that you should not be found guilty. For the one He chooses will survive, and the rest of you will perish." - [Mid. Tanchuma 5, Bamidbar Rabbah 18:8]||זאת עשו קחו לכם מחתות: מה ראה לומר להם כך, אמר להם בדרכי הגוים יש נימוסים הרבה וכומרים הרבה ואין כולם מתקבצים בבית אחד, אנו אין לנו אלא ה' אחד, ארון אחד ותורה אחת ומזבח אחד וכהן גדול אחד ואתם מאתים וחמישים איש מבקשים כהונה גדולה, אף אני רוצה בכך, הא לכם תשמיש חביב מכל, היא הקטרת החביבה מכל הקרבנות וסם המות נתון בתוכו שבו נשרפו נדב ואביהוא, לפיכך התרה בהם והיה האיש אשר יבחר ה' הוא הקדוש, כבר הוא בקדושתו. וכי אין אנו יודעים שמי שיבחר הוא הקדוש, אלא אמר להם משה הריני אומר לכם שלא תתחייבו, מי שיבחר בו יצא חי, וכולכם אובדים:|
Or maybe explicitly. I suppose I agree that, given the previous experience of Nadav and Avihu, it might have been obvious that this would be the fate of those not chosen.
Or maybe this was never part of the test. But, just as ketzef breaks out, so does this break out. When Hashem becomes angry, He smites those who are in the act of rebellion. The punishment is for persisting in the rebellion, not specifically for bringing the ketores. As Moshe says, רַב-לָכֶם בְּנֵי לֵוִי.
Also, רַב-לָכֶם בְּנֵי לֵוִי is a clear reversal of the earlier assertion against Moshe and Aharon. Also, it is a reversal of הַמְעַט מִכֶּם below in pasuk 9.