Our parsha deals with a fascinating story about a rebellion which took place against Moshe and Aharon which was led by Korach. Korach wanted to usurp Moshe and Aharon of their authority. Moshe served as the Jewish people's king, while Aharon was their High Priest. Korach wanted those positions for himself. We find sources that tell us that this was not just another simple case of jealousy, but that something happened which agitated Korach, motivating him to take action.
The Midrash says that when Moshe appointed Elitzaphan to be the leader of the Kohathite family (the family of Kehas), Korach became enraged. A quick look at Korach's family tree will shed light as to why he was so aggravated.
Ya'akov Avinu had a son named Levi. Levi had three sons, Gershon, Kehas, and Merari. Today, we will focus on Kehas. Kehas had four sons. In chronological order of birth, their names were: Amram, Yitzhar, Chevron, and Uziel. Amram, the oldest brother, fathered Moshe and Aharon. Therefore, it makes sense that Moshe and Aharon held the two highest positions of king and High Priest. After all, they came from Kehas's first born son.
Kehas's second son was Yitzhar. Yitzhar fathered Korach. This means that Moshe and Korach were first cousins. One would have thought that when they were seeking a candidate to hold the next highest ranking position, which was the leader of the Kohathite family, Korach would have been selected. After all, Korach came from Kehas's second born son who was next in line.
However, instead of Moshe appointing Korach to lead the Kohathite family, Moshe appointed a different cousin named Elitzaphan. Elitzaphan came from Kehas's youngest son Uziel. This was one of the incidents that infuriated Korach, propelling him to rebel.
One difficulty with this Midrash is that if Korach was jealous of his younger cousin's position (Elitzaphan's appointment) he should have just lodged a complaint that he should be given the position of leader of the Kohathite family. How did Korach have the audacity to claim the positions of sovereign and High Priest which rightfully belonged to Korach's older cousins, Moshe and Aharon? Apparently, those two positions were never meant to be Korach's to begin with.
Another Midrash explains where Korach was coming from. Korach demanded that he hold the two highest positions because of the fact that his (Korach's) father's name was Yitzhar. Yitzhar is not just a name; it is also a word that means oil. Korach took this to mean that he was connected to oil. When one mixes any other liquid with oil, oil floats to the top. Korach reasoned that this property applied to him as well. Korach felt that when you compare anybody to him, Korach would come out on top. Therefore, Korach demanded the top positions.
Perhaps we could suggest that it was for this reason that Korach assembled specifically two hundred and fifty men to support him. As we mentioned, Korach thought that he deserved to be the High Priest. One of the most coveted jobs of the High Priest is the lighting of the Menorah. Therefore, it was fitting to gather specifically two hundred and fifty men campaigning on Korach's ticket, because when you want to write the number two hundred and fifty using the numerical value of Hebrew letters, you would write the letters reish (200) and nun (50). When these two letters are reversed, they spell the word "Ner" (candle), hinting at the honor of lighting the candles of the Menorah.
Moreover, a High Priest is inaugurated by being anointed with oil. Since Korach came from Yitzhar (oil), he thought that he should be anointed with the oil for that position. A king is also inaugurated by being anointed with oil. Since Korach came from Yitzhar (oil), he felt that he should be anointed with oil for that position also.
This is why Korach was not satisfied with just becoming the leader of the Kohathite family, but rather insisted that he become the king and the High Priest.
One could argue against Korach that Moshe and Aharon, who held those two highest positions, came from Amram who was Kehas's oldest son. As such, Moshe and Aharon deserved the highest positions. Korach, however, came from Yitzhar, who was Kehas's second born son. Therefore, Korach was only entitled to the next position which was leader of the Kohathite family.
This line of reasoning never bothered Korach, because we find that second born sons sometimes receive higher positions that first born sons. One example of this was Levi's three sons, Gershon, Kehas, and Merari. Although Gershon was the first born, nevertheless, Kehas was given the privilege of carrying the Holy Ark from place to place. Since the Holy Ark was considered to be the holiest vessel, Kehas received the highest position. Gershon only carried the curtains and Tachash coverings of the Sanctuary, which was a secondary position.
Korach reasoned that although he was from Yitzhar, the second born, in no way did that impede on his aspiration to receive the highest positions held by Moshe and Aharon who came from Amram, the first born of Kehas.
Historically, second born sons have often held higher ranking positions than first born sons. Some examples of this are Kayin and Hevel, Ya'akov and Eisav, and Ephraim and Menasheh.
This does not mean that a first born son cannot hold the highest position. After all, Korach was the first born son of Yitzhar. It just means that coming from a second born son does not prevent one from holding the highest position.
However, a question still remains. Moshe and Aharon were already anointed with the actual anointing oil. How did Korach think that his coming from a father named oil could trump that? In other words, how could Korach depend so heavily on his father's name? It's just a name!
The Maharzav addresses this by saying that Korach understood that names are not random. Especially back then when personalities like Levi and Kehas possessed Divine inspiration. Righteous people like that named their children names that fit their destinies. So, if Kehas called his second son Yitzhar, it must have been because Kehas foresaw prophetically that Yitzhar's children were destined to be anointed with oil and hold the highest positions. This is what Korach depended on.
Korach's logic seems sound. However, this leads us to another question. Why did Hashem test Korach in this way? Why did God tell Moshe to skip over Korach and appoint Elitzaphan as the prince of the Kohathite family? This will only agitate Korach, moving him to lead a rebellion. Why not just give Korach what he wants? Let Korach be the leader of the Kohathite family. This could have prevented the entire episode.
Let us share a basic rule about the two ways of serving God. This will help clarify the answers to all of these questions.
There are two basic ways of serving God. They are 1) privately and 2) publicly. Both approaches have an advantage. When we serve God privately, we can be certain that it is done altruistically, because nobody is watching. We are not looking for prestige, and we are not fishing for compliments. However, serving God publicly also has benefits. When we serve God publically and other people see us, we serve as a role model for them to follow. It is important that our children see us praying, learning, and doing acts of kindness. We set an example for them to follow. It's not just our children, but anybody and everybody can learn from watching our service of God publicly.
Now, there are two liquids which serve as paradigm examples of these two approaches. They are 1) oil and 2) wine. Let us speak about one at a time.
Wine represents serving God publically. This is because the Gemarah says that when one drinks wine he starts to reveal his secrets to others. This shows us that wine destroys privacy. Therefore, wine is connected to that which is public.
Additionally, the Talmud says that one cannot truly sing unless one drinks wine. Singing is loud and everyone can hear. Once again we see that wine brings us to the public arena.
Finally, when you pour wine from one vessel to another, it makes a sound that people can hear. This demonstrates the essence of wine in that it represents the public service of God.
By contrast, when one pours oil from one vessel to another, it makes no sound. This exhibits oil's essence. Oil is connected to that which is quiet, thus representing serving God in privacy.
Kohanim and Leviim represent these two approaches of serving God.
A Kohen, like oil, is meant to serve God privately. This is evident from his being appointed over the offerings. The primary aspect of the offerings is the thoughts that the Kohen puts into them. Proof of this is that the primary aspect of prayer is the thoughts in our minds and hearts. Prayer is merely a substitute for the absence of the offerings. Therefore, offerings too are mostly about the intentions. This is something that nobody else can see. Thus, the Kohen serves God privately.
This is why Aharon, the High Priest, was anointed with oil. This demonstrates his approach in serving God, quietly.
A Levi, on the other hand, is connected to wine. After all, the Levi's job is to sing God's praises with musical instruments which make quite a sound. This is a very public display of service to God. Levites will truly be able to burst forth with song only after drinking wine. This demonstrates his approach in serving God, publicly.
This is why God cautioned Aharon and his sons against drinking wine when they do the service in the Sanctuary or in the Temple. It is because they should not "mix their drinks." A kohen is supposed to be like oil, not like wine.
Perhaps we could suggest that this is why two of Aharon's sons died. When Nadav and Avihu entered the Holy of Holies after drinking wine, a fire came out of Heaven and consumed them. The severity of their punishment was because they crossed a line. They were supposed to be like oil, and yet they tasted from the wine. This was a paradigm shift from how Hashem wanted them to serve Him. This trespassing caused them their deaths.
However, after they died, what was Aharon's reaction? The answer is nothing! Aharon did not say a word. Imagine, two of his sons just died. How tragic! The family will be forever crushed! The two boys whose diapers he changed. The two boys who sat on Aharon's lap as they sang Shabbos songs; the two boys whom he taught Torah and raised to be outstanding Torah scholars, in a moment they were gone. An average person would have been screaming, to say the least. Aharon? Silence! This display of self-control, keeping it inside, proved to everybody that there was no better man for the job of Kohen Gadol than Aharon.
As a reward for not complaining, Hashem spoke directly with Aharon, revealing to him the teachings about a Kohen drinking wine. Since Aharon kept quiet, he merited to hear about staying away from wine which brings to loudness.
When Korach challenged Aharon's position, only Moshe responded. Aharon, however, did not say a word. This further supported the reason as to why Aharon was given the position of Kohen Gadol. It is because Aharon remained a private person. It was Moshe, the Levite, who did all the talking. This teaches us that there are times to speak and there are times to be silent. It all depends on the circumstances and on the people involved.
Korach kept using his father's name as proof that he was entitled to have the anointing oil poured over his head. Korach thought that he deserved to be the one to serve God privately. Not only did this mean that he wanted to be the High Priest, but it also meant that he wanted to be king, because a king must also keep the contents of top secret files confidential.
However, Korach was mistaken. We know this because he was punished. But, if so, why did Kehas name his second son Yitzhar? That name implies that Yitzhar and his sons deserve the positions represented by oil. How misleading was that?
One answer to this will become clear after exploring the true identities of Moshe and Korach. Moshe was a reincarnation of Hevel (Able), while Korach was a reincarnation of Kayin (Cain). Just as Kayin was jealous of Hevel, so was Korach jealous of Moshe. Kayin was jealous of Hevel because God accepted only Hevel's offering, and not Kayin's. This meant that Hevel ranked higher than Kayin. So, just as Kayin was jealous of Hevel's higher rank, so was Korach, alias Kayin, jealous of the higher rank of Moshe, alias Hevel. Boy, does history repeat itself!
Futhermore, just as Kayin caused the earth to swallow Hevel's blood, so did Moshe, alias Hevel, cause the earth to swallow the blood of Korach, alias Kayin. This was a punishment measure for measure.
This is precisely why God commanded Moshe to appoint Elitzaphan over the Kohathite family, skipping over Korach. This was meant to give Korach, alias Kayin, a second chance at rectifying his old sin of jealousy.
This is why Kehas named his second son Yitzhar. Kehas did have Divine inspiration. Kehas knew that his grandson, Korach, was going to be a reincarnation of Kayin. Kehas new that Korach was going to be tested again. Therefore, Kehas named his second son Yitzhar, conveying a message to Korach that although Korach is a Levi, nevertheless, in this instance, he needs to be as silent as oil. Meaning, when Korach hears about Elitzaphan's appointment, he should just keep his mouth closed and not say a word. That will be Korach's tikkun (fixing).
This is why Moshe was not satisfied when God created a mouth for the Earth only in order to swallow Korach. Moshe decreed that the Earth's mouth should also speak, reporting what was transpiring to Korach on the way down. Hashem fulfilled Moshe's request. Moshe wanted the Earth to speak to show the people that, just like the Earth's speaking is abnormal, so too was Korach's speaking. It was abnormal for him to have spoken out against Moshe, Aharon, and God Himself. Korach should have just kept his mouth shut!
Korach learned his lesson. This is why Korach calls out from the pit of purgatory, "Moshe and his Torah are true." Now Korach began using his mouth for the good. One day, Korach will rise again and deserve to sing praises to God like a good Levite.
We learn from all of this about the importance of knowing when to speak and when to keep the mouth shut. Perhaps we could suggest an exercise that will help us even more in this area.
Let us choose one prayer a day to sing out loud, like a Livite. This demonstrates knowing when to make holy noise. Another example could be speaking out when we witness a blatant injustice.
On the other hand, it is also important to be quiet. We can train ourselves in this area too. I think that I can speak for many of us when I say that during each and every day there are some things that happen (or don't happen) which aggravate us. Let's try to keep our mouths shut at least once and not complain.
I do not mean that we should not stand up for ourselves. I do not mean that we should not defend ourselves. I do not mean that we should be taken advantage of. What I do mean is that there are times when complaining does not help anyway. Let us use one of those times to just be silent, bite the bullet, and accept that which God has dished out to us.
I'm certain that some of us may have witnessed some scenario and we wanted to respond by saying something, but, for whatever reason, we remained silent. Then, more information became known to us and we probably said to ourselves, "Thank God I didn't open my big fat mouth!" True gladness will come to those who train themselves in this way.
So, may we all be blessed to master the art of silence, accepting Hashem's plan for us, and thus fix all of our previous lives in this gilgul (incarnation), in order that we deserve to witness the reinstitution of the kehunah (priesthood) who will be anointed with oil, and may we also live to witness the return of the Leviim who will use wine properly to sing praises to Hashem, which will inspire the very Earth itself to open its mouth and burst forth with Hallel and hoda'ah (praises and thanks).