Moshe Rabbeinu was the ultimate merciful leader, praying on behalf of a sinning nation time and again.What was different about Korach’s congregation?Why didn’t they too deserve Moshe’s intervention, when instead, he just looked on as the earth devoured them? 

It was a terrible moment, a moment of shocking violence.The earth opened up, and Korach and his followers were swallowed whole into its bowels.When you read the pesukim next week (or this week, if you’re in Eretz Yisrael), try to imagine being there.How did Bnei Yisrael feel, watching this horrifying scene unfold? 

“… and the earth that was under them split open. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses, and all the men who were for Korach, and all their property, and all that was theirs descended alive into the grave, and the earth covered them, and they were lost from the congregation.And all Yisrael who were around them fled from their cries, for they said, ‘lest the earth swallow us up’ ” (Bamidbar 16:31–3) 

And not only did the earth suddenly open its devouring jaws, but immediately afterward, “Fire went forth from Hashem and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense” (ibid 3). 

It was like a sudden earthquake in a densely populated area, terrifying and traumatic. And after the pandemonium quieted down, leaving the silence of the grave in its wake, Bnei Yisrael tried to process what they had just seen. Events had taken a sharp turn. Minutes before, a turmoil of human drives had been raging like a cyclone, pulling many Israelites into the eye of the storm.The entire camp was in an uproar over the machlokes led by Korach against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon.Cries of rebellion were heard on every side. Moshe’s attempts to make peace were spurned insolently. Meanwhile, the majority of the people looked on, waiting to see what the outcome would be. 

And now it was all over. 

The people stood there, wide eyed with shock, staring at the strip of empty land that, moments before, had teemed with members of Korach’s family and all who accompanied them.All those people were gone without a trace. 

The mefarshim are troubled by the extreme mercilessness of the event itself. The Alshich writes: 

“Where was the great compassion Moshe always showed, always standing in the breach to turn back Hashem’s anger?This time, not only did he not plead for mercy, but quite the opposite, he became their enemy.” 

Or, in the words of Rabbeinu Bechaye: 

“But we must ask and wonder with great surprise at this passage… Moshe, the faithful shepherd who prayed many times for Yisrael for many aveiros that they did, such as the episode of the Calf, the Sin of the Spies, and others — how is it that he didn’t pray for them in this instance, and how is it that he did not set them right? For we know that teshuvah overrides everything, and there is no aveirah in the whole Torah, even the most serious aveirah, that cannot be rectified by teshuvah! For His right Hand is stretched out to receive penitents, even to those who rebel and sin deliberately against Him.If they doubted Moshe’s word, and they thought he was assigning positions of leadership according to his own wishes and not by Hashem’s command, Moshe could have provided them with a sign by which they could believe him.” 

Indeed, it seems as though Moshe was acting out of character in this episode. What made this great oheiv Yisrael demand a display of absolute middas hadin in this case?And not only a severe punishment, but something startling and unique: 

“And Moshe said… ‘But if Hashem creates a creation, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them and all that is theirs, and they descend alive into the grave, you will know that these men have provoked Hashem’ ” (ibid 28–30). 

What was it about the sin of Korach and his supporters that was worse that the Sin of the Calf or the Sin of the Spies? Why, in the latter two episodes, did Moshe stand up and plead with all of his merciful, loving heart for the people’s lives, whereas here, we see such harshness? Was he more zealous, chalilah, for his own honor than for the honor of Hashem?And indeed, why didn’t he just give an unequivocal sign to his opponents? Why did he not try to demonstrate to them, in a language they would accept, that the truth was on his side? 

The Alshich answers this question by pointing out the true nature of the problem Moshe faced, and he teaches us something about the essence of Jewish leadership: 

“Korach and his supporters had been infected with a disease of denial of the prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu and of Torah min haShamayim, and it was beginning to spread — it had already infected 250 men… and was on its way to enticing the entire congregation. And if it had encompassed them all, the whole nation would have come to an end, chas v’chalilah, and the world would have returned to tohu vavohu. Had Korach remained among the living, there would be no stopping the spread of the plague.” 

This sin was different from all the previous sins. The Sin of the Calf and the Sin of the Spies were specific in their focus. They damaged the fabric of the people’s faith at a certain point, but they did not undermine their faith in Hashem and His Torah as a whole, nor did they question the fact that Moshe was their Divinely appointed leader. In the previous episodes, Moshe maintained hope that with Hashem’s forgiveness and the people’s teshuvah, they could return to their previous spiritual state.But Korach, with his machlokes, sought to undermine the very foundations of the Torah — belief in its Divine origin and in Moshe Rabbeinu as Hashem’s emissary. Korach derided the peirush of the mitzvos given to Moshe at Sinai (“Tzitzis must have a thread of techeiles? Then what about a garment made entirely of techeiles? ”) He preached an entirely false approach to the Torah.A sin of this nature called for a departure from Moshe’s usual course of action.This sickness could not be cured with words, with lectures, or by a debate.It called for shock therapy.The people’s minds had been swayed by propaganda, and their thinking needed to be turned around radically. 

Korach knew how to influence people’s minds, implementing techniques that are not unfamiliar to today’s advertising industry.Devise the right jingle, the one that will go straight to the brain stem, and you’ve got your customer base, whether you’re selling sneakers or presidential candidates.Korach knew the psychology and his campaign was highly successful, even though it was founded on distortion of the truth. 

Propaganda slogans penetrate the human mind in such a way that a person isn’t even aware of how he is being influenced.Gradually, they fog up his thinking, until he eventually espouses as his own the opinions that have been planted in his mind.And what will make him change his mind now? Nothing but a shocking exposure of the truth. 

Korach had already convinced many of Bnei Yisrael, and many more had been swayed by his influence.In order to save the people, something more powerful than words was needed. The descent of Korach and his followers into the earth’s gaping jaws was a small sacrifice compared to the loss of the entire nation, forever.It was the very Torah — on which the world’s existence depends — that was at stake. 

And if the people’s faith had been shaken, the seeds of heresy were knocked out of them by the shocking sight they witnessed at that moment of truth. 

This is why Moshe told the people clearly, moments before the earth split open, “Separate yourselves from this congregation.”As a practical measure simply to save them from death, the warning was unnecessary.The Almighty could bring death to one person and not to another standing right next to him.Rather, as Rabbeinu Bechaye explains, the intent of the warning was that they should disassociate themselves spiritually from those who had filled the air with their kefirah.Move away from them — their sickness is contagious. 

At that moment, radical surgery was performed on the Jewish People to save them from disappearing into the black hole of history that has swallowed up so many nations.And the operation was a success.