The Midrash, i.e. the rabbinic mode of interpretation prominent in the Talmud, tells us: “Korach was smart. What did he see with this nonsense?
One explanation is that he did foresee his great grandchild Shmuel becoming the most influential and holy prophet and has relied on his “future Yichus” (i.e. descent from a family of high reputation) to protect him. The Midrash assumes that Korach was smart. Frankly speaking, and having read the Parsha many times, I was perplexed by his actions in general, but in particular in the following episode:
They (Korach & his party) assembled against Moshe and Aaron, and said to them,
וַיִּֽקָּהֲל֞וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֲלֵהֶם֮ רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כׇל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם יְהֹוָ֑ה וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל יְהֹוָֽה׃
They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and Hashem is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Hashem’s congregation?”
Moshe Rabeinu, in his reply suggests:
זֹ֖את עֲשׂ֑וּ קְחוּ־לָכֶ֣ם מַחְתּ֔וֹת קֹ֖רַח וְכׇל־עֲדָתֽוֹ׃
Do this: You, Korah and your entire band, take fire pans,
וּתְנ֣וּ בָהֵ֣ן ׀ אֵ֡שׁ וְשִׂ֩ימוּ֩ עֲלֵיהֶ֨ן ׀ קְטֹ֜רֶת לִפְנֵ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ מָחָ֔ר וְהָיָ֗ה הָאִ֛ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה ה֣וּא הַקָּד֑וֹשׁ רַב־לָכֶ֖ם בְּנֵ֥י לֵוִֽי׃
And tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before Hashem. Then the candidate whom Hashem chooses, he shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!”
Korach knew well, as Moshe Rabeinu had warned him that mismanaging the Ketoret, the incense, is a dangerous business. How did he not calculate the risk of going into a frontal clash with his cousin, who has led the people out of Egypt having commanded over the 10 plagues, the split of the red sea, becoming the person to deliver the ten commandments (nine of them, personally). Did he not fear this might end up in a catastrophic way for him and his entourage? Calculating risk vs reward must be the most important item in a “smart man’s” brain!
Many years later, Hashem instructed the Prophet Shmuel to “impeach” King Shaul from his position. It is clear that G-d has decided to end Shaul’s term. His position has become “untenable”.
And yet, not only did Shmuel accompany him was they left the scene, (in order to cause him embarrassment in front of the large crowd), but furthermore, Shaul did in fact continue to preside over his people for over two years, at the end of which Hashem “Re instructed” Shmuel, saying to him “stop mourning for Shaul and get on with the mission of crowning David” who was designated as the next Monarch.
It seems that sometimes even the clear wish of Hashem could be “mitigated” by his compassion for us human beings.
Korach may have calculated the fact that if his ketoret as well as his 250 co-sponsors are all going to be rejected by Hashem, this will be such a huge embarrassment for so many people, that Hashem might not do it, after all. Indeed, it seems that not only Korach might have thought so, but even Moshe Rabeinu has entertained the possibility, as seems from the following verse (at the midst of the evolving incident) in which he appeals:
וַיִּ֤חַר לְמֹשֶׁה֙ מְאֹ֔ד וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֔ה אַל־תֵּ֖פֶן אֶל־מִנְחָתָ֑ם לֹ֠א חֲמ֨וֹר אֶחָ֤ד מֵהֶם֙ נָשָׂ֔אתִי וְלֹ֥א הֲרֵעֹ֖תִי אֶת־אַחַ֥ד מֵהֶֽם׃
Moses was much aggrieved and he said to Hashem, “Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.”
It is clear that even as Moshe Rabeinu knew the unjustified and “unholy” nature of the Korach revolt, he still was not at all sure that Hashem would reject their offering.
So, after all, as Chazal, our sages, say, Korach was smart, his miscalculation was tragic but not absolutely wrong…
Rabbi Chaim Michael Biberfeld