Reading through the narrative portion of Parshat Korach, one finds a number of groups complaining against Moshe and Aharon. The first is Korach, the second is Datan and Aviram’s group, the third is the 250 followers of Korach, and the fourth are an ambiguous group of people who are upset at the beginning of chapter 17 (17:6).
All these complaints are followed by the story of Aharon’s staff blossoming — to the exclusion of the staffs of all tribe leaders — to achieve G-d’s goal of “removing from Me all the complaints of the children of Israel that they complain against you [Moshe and Aharon]” (17:20).
The last of the four groups is the most confusing. Who are they? What is their agenda? They are called “kol adat yisrael” and “ha’edah” — both of which refer to a gathered group. And their complaint, quite legitimately, is “you caused the deaths of the nation of G-d!”
Rashbam rightly notes that the people took no issue with the demise of Datan and Aviram. In fact, the way Moshe warned them publicly, over and over, and told everyone who didn’t want to be associated with them to get away because a supernatural event would take place, proved that Datan and Aviram’s complaint about Moshe was an unconscionable complaint against G-d.
But the 250 men! They were bringing ketoret! They were just trying to demonstrate their ability to serve G-d too! And Moshe, knowing the price ketoret could exact, set them up to die!
Rabbi Yitzchak Caro, the Toldot Yitzchak, addressed the confusion that emerges from this story. In addition to wondering about the complainers, he also wondered how the deaths of the 250 fire-pan bringers would not teach the people a lesson regarding Moshe’s and Aharon’s chosenness, while the test of the sticks of the tribe leaders would.
Rabbi Caro divides the original groups into four: Korach, Datan and Aviram, Levites, Firstborns. All of them wanted to be kohanim (I take issue with this claim regarding Datan and Aviram, because it is most clear to me that their complaints were about Moshe’s failed leadership dooming them to die in the wilderness, not the priesthood. However, the text is vague enough to allow for Datan and Aviram to seek the priesthood as well). In fact, firstborns had brought offerings prior to the Golden Calf (see Shemot 24:5 and Zevachim 115b), and the 250 were seeking to reverse what they deemed to be an injustice. They had all lost the right to serve simply because some people, already punished with death, had worshipped the Golden Calf.
The firstborns’ accusation was that Moshe had taken firstborn rights away and given them to his own tribe. The accusation of the Levites was that since their tribe was chosen, they should all be kohanim, not just Moshe’s brother’s family. Datan and Aviram took issue because they were from the tribe of Reuven, the firstborn of Yaakov, and saw that Yehoshua, born from Yosef, would take over for Moshe. Yaakov may have had a personal affinity for Yosef and a slight vendetta against Reuven, but did that mean that Yosef deserved the double portion for all time? Moshe should have righted that wrong!
Korach sought the kehunah for two reasons: he was a Levite, and he personally was a firstborn to his father Yitzhar. His 250 followers were all firstborns, some of them also Levites (see 16:8-10). (Rabbi Caro argues that it is impossible that they are all Levites, as the Levites conducted themselves with holiness and there is no way 250 of them would gather in a revolt against Moshe or Aharon.)
Datan and Aviram being consumed by the earth proved that Reuven was not to be the kohen of the tribes. The 250 being consumed by fire proved that the firstborns of all the tribes, as well as Levi (except Aharon’s family), were not kohanim. Korach’s death proved both of his arguments — being a Levi and a firstborn — wrong. He was undeserving of kehunah.
One problem remains: It has been proven that firstborns cannot be kohanim. But why can they not be Levites? They should be able to assist the kohanim as the Levites do! The ketoret test was unfair, because all it proved was that they could not be kohanim. As Rabbi Caro put it, were they to perform Levitical work, they were confident they would not die. So, Moshe, why not put it to the test? Have them perform Levitical work and see if they die!
Those leading the complaint against Moshe for his unfair test of the firstborns were their fathers (kol adat yisrael). (Rabbi Caro does not address why 14,700 people died on account of complaining about the deaths of 250.) In this sense, Aharon bringing out the ketoret to stop the ensuing plague demonstrated that it is not ketoret that is dangerous; it is ketoret in the wrong person’s hands.
Which leads us to the final point: the test of the tribal leaders’ staffs.
When only Aharon’s staff blossomed, it demonstrated that no firstborns could serve simply on account of their being a firstborn, not even those of the tribe of Levi. The Levites could serve as Levites in their capacity as members of Aharon’s tribe (his staff represented the tribe of Levi), and Aharon’s heroics with the ketoret and the fire pan demonstrated that only he was worthy of being a kohen.
Were the 250 people all Levites, the entire “adat bnei Yisrael” would not have complained against Moshe — it must have been that representatives from the entire nation (firstborns) were all in the group of 250.
It is clear to me from all this that if all of the groups had come to Moshe to say “We want a place in the service of G-d” without challenging Moshe’s and Aharon’s divine appointments, that Moshe could have directed them differently. They did not say, “We want to learn Torah. We want direction in how we can personally serve G-d.” They wanted positions that were unavailable to them because of G-d’s rules!
The job of the Jewish people is to embrace and educate all Jews who want to learn Torah and personally serve G-d, without preconditions. Not everyone can be a kohen. Not everyone can be a Levite. But every Jew should be allowed to have a portion in the study of Torah and in personally getting close to G-d.