Parshat Korach includes a familiar Biblical refrain. Hashem threatens to destroy Bnai Yisrael and Moshe comes to their rescue through prayer and pleading. The question that many are troubled with in such situations surrounds Moshe’s ability to “convince Hashem to change His mind.” After all, isn't Hashem a perfect Being? How does Moshe have the audacity to challenge Hashem, and why does Hashem “appear” to be swayed?
This is a question that applies, as previously stated, to a number of stories in the Torah, and there are several ways to solve this general problem. In Parshat Korach, however, certain elements of the dialogue between Hashem and Moshe may allow us to consider a unique solution.
In 16:21, Hashem says to Moshe and Aharon, הבדלו מתוך העדה הזאת ואכלה אותם כרגע, “Separate yourselves from this congregation and I will destroy them instantly.” Moshe and Aharon respond by arguing that the sin of one man does not warrant the punishment of the entire group. Hashem then responds by telling Moshe to isolate Korach, Datan, and Aviram so that the earth can swallow them up. After this takes place, a fire consumes the 250 followers of Korach. It would appear that Hashem had decided to do it Moshe’s way.
The events that follow, however, take us in a different direction. On the day following this incident, the entire congregation murmurs against Moshe and Aharon, אתם המתם את עם ה', “You have killed the people of Hashem.” Once again, Hashem threatens to destroy them when in 17:10 He says, הרמו מתוך העדה הזאת ואכלה אותם כרגע, “Remove yourself from this congregation, and I will destroy them instantly.” Once again, Moshe and Aharon fall on their faces, presumably in prayer, but the Torah does not mention an actual prayer being said. Instead, Moshe tells Aharon to take a pan with fire and incense, which Aharon must use to end the plague that Hashem had just sent out among the people.
These events further complicate matters. At first, it seemed that Hashem was going to follow the advice of Moshe and Aharon. Then the Jews get Him angry again, so He sent a plague, but Aharon can stop it with a ritual of fire and incense. Is there some message that Hashem is trying to tell us in this sequence of events?
A hint may arise from the difference in Hashem’s language each time He threatens the destruction of Bnai Yisrael. The first time, Hashem says הבדלו, whereas the second time, He says הרמו. It seems that Hashem never truly meant to destroy Bnai Yisrael. Perhaps the word ואכלה was used to express what the Jews deserved or what would happen to them if certain corrective actions were not taken, namely הבדלו and הרמו. When Hashem uses the word הבדלו, separate (yourselves), He may be alluding to the fact the entire congregation is suspect and will remain corrupt until the evil influences are “separated” from them. In essence, then, Moshe’s argument was correct. Hashem should only punish Korach and his company. However, Moshe went too far, implying that nothing was really wrong with the rest of the people (ועל כל העדה תקצף). Hashem was saying that the people had already been corrupted through Korach’s influence. Getting rid of that influence was the first step in healing the people, but that alone would not be enough. Thus Hashem says ואכלה regarding the people, connoting their corrupt state.
Sure enough, on the very next day Hashem’s attitude towards the people is supported as they show their true colors even after the removal of the evil influence, murmuring against Moshe and Aharon. At this point, Hashem says הרמו מתוך העדה הזאת, or “elevate yourself from this congregation,” perhaps indicating that Moshe and Aharon should not focus on separating or weeding out evil influences, but rather should operate from the moral and spiritual high ground from which they would be able to gain כפרה and רפואה for the people. Indeed, Moshe tells Aharon וכפר עליהם. Atonement was needed for the people, and only then they would be able to lose the status that would bringואכלה , utter destruction.
The Korach story allows us to catch a glimpse of Divine wisdom and how Hashem operates as a judge. Death and destruction may sometimes be used to indicate a moral or religious state that must be corrected, much the way the Torah uses the term מות יומת, “He will surely die,” even though the death penalty was rarely applied in actual practice. When correcting such problems, Hashem tells us that we must weed out the evil influences as a first step. Once that is done, a spiritual healing can begin.