The namesake of our parasha is Korach. It is not surprising, therefore, that most meforshim focus the majority of their exegetical efforts on this rabble rouser and his sycophants, Datan, Aviram and On ben Pelet. In contrast, these same commentators are nearly silent regarding the identity of the additional “250 men m’bnai Yisrael, chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute” who joined Korach’s rebellion.
While in a passing gloss, Rashi suggests these were the 250 heads of the Sanhedrot, the majority of whom were from the tribe of Reuven (16:1), and Rabbeinu Chananel ben Chushiel asserts they were all Levi’im from Korach’s tribe (16:2), very little other identifying information is available in standard sources. Moreover, the true nature of these individuals remains obscure.
Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 110a, teaches that they were men of universal renown who knew when and how to add an extra month to the calendar and establish Rosh Chodesh in its proper time. Why would such accomplished and respected individuals have joined Korach’s insurrection?
The Netziv answers this in his Torah commentary: “One must know that the 250 men were gedolei Yisrael in every way, including their awe of Hashem. Their exclusion from the Kahunah — which, itself, brings cleaving to and love of Hashem — burned like a fire within them. This was not borne of a desire for power and honor, but rather the thorough-going longing to become holy and to approach this level [of spiritual heights reached by the Kohanim] through performance of the Avodah (service in the Mishkan). Moreover, they knew that what Hashem had spoken through Moshe was absolutely true and they did not, G-d forbid, question the veracity of his [Moshe’s] words. The only matter which they doubted was their comprehension of the proper way to understand Hashem’s authentic will. Therefore, they engaged in these deeds of manifest martyrdom [that is, the rebellion and the prohibited act of bringing the incense] because of the unlimited amount of love they had for Hashem … and because of this, they felt forced to undertake the rebellion against Moshe and Aharon and break the bonds of acceptable behavior.”
Rav Herschel Schechter shlita has said that the Netziv was so creative, and his commentary so incisive, that he rivaled the Rishonim in his analyses. This is surely the case in this trenchant presentation.
In relatively few words, the Netziv has rescued the 250 men m’bnai Yisrael from virtual obscurity and revealed their true nature. In his view, these were spiritual giants who recognized the authenticity of Moshe’s prophecy, loved and honored Hashem and held Him in awe. As such, they sought to draw closer to Him through the incense service, even if it meant their imminent demise. Given the purity of their intentions, the Netziv maintains that, rather than being swallowed in the earthquake that engulfed Korach and his ilk, these gedolei Yisrael were punished by fire that went forth from the inner sanctum of the Kodesh Kedoshim. Though they were misguided in their approach, these 250 great men had, nonetheless, acted l’shame shamayim.
If, as the Netziv notes, the 250 m’bnai Yisrael were the chasidei hador (the righteous ones of the generation), how could they have so easily been duped by the likes of Datan and Aviram, and the Machiavellian machinations of Korach? He suggests that these righteous individuals failed because they permitted their desire to attain the spiritual heights reserved for Kohanim to overtake their logical understanding and commitment to Hashem’s mitzvot.
Here, the Netziv teaches us a profound lesson: Even talmidei chachamim who are counted among the chasidei hador, who love and respect the Torah and hold Hashem in awe, may fall short in their service to the Almighty, if she’ta’u m’derech hasechel.
May the lessons and insights of our parasha help us to ensure our avodat Hashem is a product of both our hearts, and our minds. In this way, may we ever strive to serve Him in purity, and in truth. V’chane yihi ratzon.