The punishment dealt to Korach is one of several puzzling aspects of Parshat Korach. Pirkei Avot teaches that the Mouth of the Earth was one of the things Hashem created on the eve of the first Sabbath. Why was the Mouth of the Earth chosen as the means of punishing Korach? Another rather strange aspect of the parsha is the odd response by Dathan and Abiram to Moshe’s entreaty but also Moshe’s own subsequent request to Hashem.
Moshe calls to Dathan and Abiram. They reply stating that they “will not go up.” They complain that Moshe took them out of the Land of Egypt just to rule over them. They refer to Egypt as a “land of milk and honey.” They make this latter accusation using the phrase
כִּֽי־תִשְׂתָּרֵ֥ר עָלֵ֖ינוּ גַּם־הִשְׂתָּרֵֽר. Why the repetition of the word שְׂתָּרֵֽר? With this phrase the first aliyah concludes, but their complaints continue on into the second the aliyah. Why does the Torah split their complaint?
Dathan and Abiram, in the second part of their complaint, note that Moses has not yet brought them into a land flowing with milk and honey nor given them fields or vineyards. They continue stating that even if Moses will put out their eyes they will not go up. Moses responds by asking Hashem not to pay attention to their offering, which he refers to as minchatam. Yet nowhere do we see them bringing an offering, let alone mincha offering. Indeed, the only offering mentioned is an incense offering which, we will learn in a few verses, they will not have the opportunity to bring.
Dathan and Abiram’s focus on “a land flowing with milk and honey” and praise of Egypt evinces that their opposition to Moshe was not rooted in religious zeal but in materialism. They preferred Egypt because it was the most advanced civilization on Earth. It was the land of the greatest luxuries. The dual use of the word שְׂתָּרֵֽר refers to the twofold aspect of Torah, the written and the oral. Dathan and Abiram accuse Moshe of imposing upon them not only the burdens of the written Torah but the burdens of the Oral Torah. Similarly, we can derive from some midrashim that Korach’s complaint was that the Oral Torah was merely Moshe’s own creation and not the word of Hashem.
In Parshat Behaalotecha (11:5) the people lament the food they ate for free in Egypt. The commentators explain that their real longing was not for food but to be free of the sexual prohibitions placed upon them by the Torah. So also do Dathan and Abiram lament the burdens placed upon them by the written and Oral Torahs. Thus, their first complaint is that life was better in Egypt because they were free from Torah. In the second aliyah their complaint is that once in the Land of Israel their life will be even more burdensome.
In connection with going up to the Land of Israel, Dathan and Abiram mention having eyes put out. We can better understand this statement by looking forward to Parshat Ekev (Devarim 11:12). There Hashem states that the bounty of the Land of Israel comes from the rain that flows down from heaven. Hashem declares that His eyes are always on the Land of Israel. That is to say, Hashem is always scrutinizing the behavior of Israel’s inhabitants. Dathan and Abiram do not want that intense scrutiny. They would rather forgo fields and vineyards in the Land of Israel than endure the scrutiny that Hashem will place upon them.
Moshe, knowing that Dathan and Abiram’s character is one of materialism, asked that Hashem not accept their mincha offering. Rav Soloveitchik teaches there is a difference between the morning offering and the afternoon mincha offering, that there is a difference between the prayers of Shacharit and the prayers of Mincha. The former prayer acknowledges and thanks Hashem for restoring us to life. The latter asks not just for sustenance but for luxuries. Rav Soloveitchik notes the prominence in mincha offering of the wine libation and that it denotes luxuries. Nothing could be more painful to two individuals such as Dathan and Abiram than being denied luxuries of life.
Korach, however, is different. He acts out of misguided religious zeal. He believes that he knows better than Hashem. It would appear to the rational observer that Hashem selected Moses. Korach, however, is of the view that Moses selected himself. To Korach, Moshe is no different than anyone else. According to Rashi it was Korach’s opinion that the entire congregation is holy because everyone heard Him speak at Har Sinai. In Korach’s view it is nothing special that Hashem speaks to Moshe, for after all did not Hashem speak to the entire nation? So Korach wants to replace Moshe. Korach wants to replace Hashem’s opinion with his own opinion. We have seen this before back in Bereishit.
Rashi tells us that when Hashem commands the Earth to bring forth fruit it was with the intent that both the tree and the fruit have the same taste. The midrash says that the Earth, thinking that people would consume both tree and fruit, departed from Hashem instructions. The fruit trees the Earth brought forth did not themselves taste like the fruit. The punishment for this infraction only came after Adam sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. That sin occurred on the eve of the first Sabbath, at the very same time the Mouth of the Earth was created.
Ultimately, the Mouth of the Earth would be a counterbalance to the Earth’s original sin. At creation the Earth substituted its judgment for that of Hashem. Now it would be a vehicle for punishing those who substitute their judgment for that of Hashem. The creation of the Mouth of the Earth did not, however, foretell that Korach in particular would sin. Rather, the Mouth of the Earth was created to punish whoever first denied the divinity of the Oral Torah, the Torah that is taught by word of mouth. It was a wonder of such degree that it shut the mouths of all doubters.
William S.J. Fraenkel received a bachelor of arts in religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.