250 Chieftains and the Plot of Korach
In the beginning of Parshat Korah, the Torah tells us that Korach did not act alone in his rebellion against Moshe and Aaron.
Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben— to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. (Bamidbar 16:1-2)
Korach was joined, at least initially, by Dathan, Aviram, On and 250 additional men. A total of 253 people acted in collusion with Korach. The motivation of Korach seems pretty clear - he was not happy, among other claims, that Moshe and Aharon were elevated in status and he was not. Likewise the motivation of Datan, Aviram and On also seems quite clear. The Bechor Shor explains that being from the tribe of Reuven, they were upset that the tribe of Levi was elevated instead of the tribe of Reuven. Since Reuven was the first born, they thought that it was their own tribe that should receive preferred treatment, not that of Levi.
But what was the claim of the 250 men who joined in the rebellion? Rashi writes that the 250 men were also members of the tribe of Reuven. They too were upset that Levi was chosen over Reuven.
However, the Torah describes these 250 men in glowing terms. They are prominent, and more importantly, they are described in the Talmud as Torah scholars:
“And they arose before Moses, with men from the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown” (Numbers 16:2). These men were the distinctive people of the assembly. “The elect men of the assembly [keri’ei moed]” is referring to those who knew how to intercalate the years and establish the months in order to determine the time for each Festival [moed]. (Sanhedrin 110a)
If these men were so accomplished, should they not have realized that switching the tribe of Reuven for the tribe of Levi was not a viable option? Originally the 'kohanim' were to be the first born from every family, from any of the tribes of Israel. Then, once the Jewish people sinned with the Golden calf, it was exclusively the tribe of Levi that was elevated because they alone did not participate in the sin of the Golden calf (See Shemot 32:26-28).
Thus, if the 250 men were truly Torah scholars they would have realized that their argument was of little merit. In fact, the Bechor Shor quotes the Talmudic account of the wife of On to explain that even she understood that the tribe of Reuven would not gain in the end. On’s wife told him that he is from the tribe of Reuven and therefore whether Moshe is the leader or Korach is the leader, On’s status will stay unchanged. She therefore, according to the Talmud, devised a clever scheme to allow him to escape the commitment that he made to the rebellion.
What then could be another motivation of the 250 men? The Bechor Shor, as quoted by the Daat Zekeinim, has a fascinating suggestion.
The Bechor Shor argues that the 250 men were not all from the tribe of Reuven. In fact, they came from 11 tribes, all the tribes except for Levi. Korach collected 23 prominent men from each of the different tribes. Korach was assembling a Sanhedrin, a high court of 23 judges from each tribe. 250 men, plus Datan, Aviram and On equals a total of 253 men. That is 23 men from each of the 11 tribes (11 x 23 = 253).
The Talmud describes the 250 men as being capable of calculating the new months of the calendar, which is precisely the job of the Sanhedrin!
Korach’s rebellion was far more reaching than just wanting to become the leader of the Jewish people. He wanted to become the leader, and also be in charge of all the judicial appointments. Imagine how much power he would wield had he been successful. And note the great hypocrisy of his argument. He claimed that Moshe unfairly took the mantle of leadership and appointed whomever he so desired. But Korach’s solution is to do the same.
In Parshat Yitro we read that Moshe made many judicial appointments:
Moses chose capable men out of all Israel, and appointed them heads over the people—chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. (Shemot 18:26)
Korach questioned everything that Moshe did. He was not just interested in becoming the leader, but he wanted to revamp all that Moshe did. He wanted to start anew, with his own people in place.
Korach’s rebellion was not about truth or even nepotism. It was about power. Korach wanted all the power himself. He wanted to be in charge of everything and everyone. He was correct that "The entire assembly of Israel is holy," but at the same time he was very wrong. He used his claims for one purpose only, to promote himself and seek his own personal power and gain.