Now Korah betook himself
In the Midrash it is written: What did Korah see that caused him to challenge Moses? He saw the chapter of the red heifer.
This Midrash requires interpretation. Our master explains that Korah argued that, insasmuch as the whole congregation is holy and is close to the Eternal, Priests and Levites were not needed to lead them, serving as their ministers, judges and officers. Indeed that, too, had been the opinion of Moses when he brought them out to the mountain of God, to Horeb: the people should all be equals, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, with no priest or leader to rule over them. However, the people refused to study themselves, nor did want to hear the law and wisdom from the mouth of the Eternal, which was why they placed “נעשה” (we will do) before “נשמע” (we will study), because (Proverbs 24:7) “ראמות לאוִיל חכמוֹת” (wisdom is too lofty for a fool). So they made themselves a molten calf, saying “these are your gods, O Israel,” their souls desiring abominations and a leader that would go before them to follow him, like an ox follows its owner. (And see above סדר תרומה and סדר כי תשא where our master elaborated on this.)
Now it is known that when the Israelites were at Mt. Sinai, their contamination (resulting from the transgression of eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden) was terminated (פסקה זוהמתן), and they became immortal. However, when they turned to idols and they made an idol of gold, the contamination was restored and their mortality was decreed for the generations. It was concerning this that Asaph composed his song (Psalms 82:6) “אני אמרתי אלהים אתם” (I said: you are godlike) — meaning that all the people would have become godlike, and would have all become leaders — “אכן כאדם תמותון” (nevertheless, you will die like mortals) — meaning that, having chosen iniquity and idols, you restored the contamination that had been removed from you.
In this light, we can understand the connection between the red heifer and the sin of the calf which inspired the Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 19:8) “תבא אמו ותקנח את הצואה” (let the mother of the calf come and clear away its filth). After the sin of the calf, God said (Exodus 32:34) “וביום פקדי ופקדתִי עלהם חטאתם” (but when I make an accounting, I will bring them to account for their sin). And our master has already explained that the day of accounting (יום פקודה) is the day of death, as it is written (Numbers 16:29) “ופקדת כל האדם יפקד עליהם” (and if their lot be the common fate of all mankind). So, when each of the Children of Israel dies and his earthly sojourn is remembered, he will cause the sin of the calf, which brought death back to the world, to be remembered as well. This is the meaning of “when I make an accounting, I will bring them to account for their sin.” And that is why the red heifer, which purifies the ritual contamination of death, atones for the sin of the calf, which is remembered on the day that a man dies. והבן כי הדברים עתיקים.
In the future, when the world will be perfected in the kingdom of the Almighty and He will dismiss the angel of death, the sin of the calf will be completely forgiven and will never be recalled or remembered again. In this light we may understand why the Sages of Secrets (i.e., the Kabbalists), possessed of the Divine Secret, wrote that in the future Korah will be vindicated in judgment and his righteousness will be clarified. They hinted at this because the final letters of the words “צדיק כתמר יפרח” (the righteous shall flourish like a palm tree) spell קרח (i.e. Korah).
According to what was said above, we can understand this very well, because Korah and Moses our teacher both held the same opinion before Israel committed the sin of the calf. If so, when the world will be filled with knowledge, and the Eternal alone will be exalted, all Israel will be at the top of the stairs (בגרם המעלות), and princes will no longer raise themselves above them nor kings reign over them.
This is the lesson the Midrash teaches: why did Korah risk his life to challenge Moses? He saw the chapter of the red heifer and from the multitude of ideas within him he believed that the heifer would cleanse completely the sin of the calf and transform entirely the spirit of impurity. He therefore rose up to argue with Moses and Aaron proclaiming (Numbers 16:4) “כי כל העדה כולם קדושים ובתוכם ה’ ולמה תתנשאו על קהל ה'”” (for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and why, then, do you lift yourselves above the assembly of the Eternal?). (שביבי אש)
‘וילנו כל עדת בני ישראל ממחרת, על משה ועל אהרן לאמר אתם המתם את עם ה
But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, You have killed the people of the Lord.
See the Ramban who explained that the people complained that Moses induced the assembly of Korah to offer strange incense as a result of which they died, even though the Eternal had not commanded Moses to do so. They blamed Moses for not choosing a different sign by which to prove that Aaron was the holy one.
Now one may ask why, indeed, did Moses act in this way towards those men? Why did he not choose a different sign? Is not the only reason for their death that they offered a strange incense? For it is written explicitly (Numbers 16:35): “ואש יצאה מאת יְהוה ותאכל את החמשים ומאתים איש מקריבי הקּטרת” (and there came out a fire from the Lord, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense).
Following the Malbim, our Master explains that each of these quarrelsome men who opposed the Eternal and His anointed one was seeking his own glory, each of them driven by a spirit of dominion, each wishing to become priest or prophet. As the son of Izhar, Korah thought himself worthy of becoming king, while Dathan and Abiram felt that, as descendants of Reuven, the eldest son of Jacob, they were entitled to the birthright. And the 250 men were princes of the congregation called into the assembly, men of renown, who were preeminent among the people. But none of them revealed his true desire to the others lest the project unravel, whereupon they would all give up and return home. For why would anyone get involved in a quarrel for someone else’s benefit? Each one, therefore, masked his true face by saying “כל העדה כולם קדושים” (all the congregation are holy), so that each could be a priest in his own house, and each would help and encourage the other to take Aaron down from his position. But, in his heart, each imagined that once Aaron was deposed, he would himself become master over his brothers.
However, the mightiest of the prophets understood the thoughts of these plotters of iniquity and wanted to undermine their plan, so he commanded them to offer incense. And although their plan was a deception and they spoke deceitfully, Moses thought that, rather than allow his allies to approach the altar to perform a service that would consume any layman who performed it, each one of them would retreat at the last minute and admit that he had sought only his own glory. Why would anyone knowingly condemn his friends and colleagues to death only to be consumed by fire? Moses therefore expected that, as a result, the evil-doers would be scattered (יתפרדו כל פעלי און, Psalms 92:10). Nevertheless, to Moses’s surprise, they all stiffened their necks and defiantly approached the altar to offer the incense. (שביבי אש)