“Moses then brought out all the staffs from before the Lord to all the Israelites;
each identified and recovered his staff.” (Numbers 17:24)
Parashat Korach opens with Korach, a Levite, accusing Moses of vanity and of setting himself above the community (Num. 16:3). Despite Moses’ efforts to forestall the rebellion, Korach and his 250 grumblers are swallowed up in an earthquake (Num. 16:31-33). This is a pretty unusual punishment and opens the door to rabbinic speculation.
Most commentators assume Korach wants to claim Moses’ mantel of leadership for himself. That is why Korach becomes the rabbinic whipping boy for self-centered arrogance (Pirkei Avot 5:20). But the language of the parasha, or portion, makes another reading possible. The parasha states, “Vayikach Korach, and Korach took…” (Num 16:1). The use of the singular for Korach (and the other actors, Datan Aviram, and On) could imply Korach and the rebels aren’t plotting to lead the people. They just don’t want Moses telling them what to do. They each want to make their own decisions individually. That’s why they cite God’s declaration the Israelites are a nation of priests and a sacred nation (Ex. 19:3-6); they want to replace Moses with a flat hierarchy of equals.
But back to the earthquake. The Kli Yakar (1550-1619; Torah commentator and poet) connects this episode to the verse “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of it, men would swallow each other alive” (Pirkei Avot 3:2). Korach and his followers seek to dismantle the existing leadership structure. This might be great for the individual but would be terrible for the community. Because their advice would have led the Israelites to swallow each other alive, they are punished with that very same fate.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom