They stood before Moshe with two hundred and fifty men from the
Bnei Yisrael, leaders of the assembly, summoned for the appointed time, men
of renown…[Moshe]spoke to Korach and to his entire assembly, saying, “In the
morning Hashem will make known the one who is His own…
Be’er Yosef: “Summoned for the mo’ed / appointed time,” explains the
gemara,2 means that each one was great enough to assist on the
high court that made issued decisions about the calendar. Their
proclamations, fixing the length of months, and declaring a leap-year when
necessary, determined when the holidays would be celebrated. This is
important not only in comprehending their intentions, but in understanding
the talent and guile of Korach, who was able to win them over to his side of
Fixing time plays a role in Moshe’s response as well. Rashi cites a midrash
that Moshe spoke of “morning” to drive home the point that Hashem created
immutable division between day and night. Korach could no more change the
nature of the kehunah than he could turn morning to evening.
How, then, did Korach make such a persuasive case against the role of Moshe?
It was a matter of public record that Moshe’s serving in a key role of
kehunah during the milu’im days did not elicit a dramatic response from
heaven, while Aharon’s service was met with a fire that descended from
Heaven. How could anyone doubt Aharon’s appointment?
Korach, it would seem could not challenge the fact of Aharon’s appointment.
He argued, however, that Hashem asked Moshe to appoint someone to the
postion, and Hashem would go along with whatever choice was made. Korach and
his followers objected to Moshe’s choice of a close relative.
To counter the claim that none could tamper with a selection approved of by
HKBH Himself, Korach picked backers who were part of the process of fixing
the Rosh Chodesh date and the leap year. The gemara establishes that the
proclamation of Rosh Chodesh by a human court is dispositive – even when the
beis din acted mistakenly. In a sense, they have veto power over the
calendar, and the Heavenly Court goes along with their decision. The fire
that descended for Aharon from Heaven didn’t prove anything about Aharon, as
much as showed that Moshe’s choice for the job would be respected above.
There was still a way to undo Aharon’s appointment, a way to reverse the
nepotism. The old appointment could be undone, and a new appointee substituted.
Moshe’s response was to underscore the word “morning.” While beis din was
granted authority over the fixing of Rosh Chodesh, this hardly means that
they wield power in all matters of the physical heavens. Human beings are
incapable of changing certain elements, like light and darkness. The
boundary between them is intrinsic; nothing humans do is going to change
that. Moshe correctly argued that the selection of Aharon and his children
to the kehunah was an intrinsic, unchangeable value.
The Yalkut broadens the scope of the dispute. In its version, Korach
attacked much more than Aharon’s appointment. He spoke of a theoretical
widow and two daughers, left to fend for themselves. They wished to plow
their field, but Moshe objected, citing the prohibition of working with an
ox and a donkey yoked together. When they began to sow their field, Moshe
again objected. Sowing a mixture of plants is forbidden! At harvest time, he
interfered again, demanding that they leave dropped and forgotten gleanings
for the poor, along with an entire corner of the field. Selling their
property and buying animals offered them no respite. Moshe was there once
again to demand the first shearings and the first-born offspring.
In other words, Korach mocked the entire system of mitzvos. Moshe’s response
was that the difference between Klal Yisrael and the other nations was fixed
and immutable as that between light and dark. Hashem chose to differentiate
and sanctify Klal Yisrael with a plethora of mitzvos that governs every
decision they would make.
The gemara3 has the sun and moon retreating to the zevul, a
distant heaven, and refusing to give light unless Hashem intervened on
behalf of Moshe. While they were coaxed out of their protest, we should ask
why they were exercised over this challenge to Moshe more than any other.
Our approach explains their position. Korach’s chief argument was that the
kehunah was plastic and fungible. It didn’t really have to go to the
descendents of Aharon; others could substitute just as well. Hashem would
honor any reasonable request, just as He deferred, as it were, to the
decision of beis din about calendar matters. Now, the Torah describes two
purposes for the main luminaries: “to separate between the day and the
night, and…for festivals.”4 The first function is fixed. Nothing
ever changes in the difference between day and night. The second function –
allowing us to determine when the holidays begin – rests in the hands of the
human court. They have some leeway in applying it. Heaven goes along with
Because Korach inappropriately cited this second function in support of his
position, the luminaries felt compelled to address themselves to the dispute.
1. Based on Be’er Yosef, Bamidbar 16:2-5
2. Sanhedrin 110A
3. Nedarim 39B
4. Bereishis 1:14