Korach was a prominent, influential leader. He got two hundred and fifty judges, heads of the high courts, to join his rebellion (Rashi). Moshe Rabbenu had performed miracles, took them out of Egypt and gave them the Torah; nonetheless they rebelled against him! How is such a thing possible?
Politicians often cannot distinguish between their own self-interest and the public good. Korach is so self-absorbed that he cannot imagine that Moshe doesn’t think about his own well-being at all. Thus, Korach accuses Moshe of favoritism in declaring his brother Aharon to be Kohein Gadol.
Rav Yisrael Salanter describes how difficult it is to separate one’s personal traits from his actions, yet we must try to purify our thought as much as possible. Moshe, the greatest prophet, has no self-interest, but Korach is unable to imagine this.
The Debates for Clarity
“An argument for the sake of heaven will endure. An argument not for the sake of heaven will not endure. Which is an argument for the sake of heaven? Hillel and Shammai. Which is an argument not for the sake of heaven? Korach and his followers.” (Avos 5:17)
The commentaries ask, “What does it mean that the argument of Hillel and Shammai endures? Surely the halacha has been determined in accordance with Beis Hillel!” They answer: The debates of Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai were made with the pure intent of clarifying the halacha. Their pure intent endures; as their words are constantly being reviewed, the halacha is constantly being clarified.
How is the rebellion of Korach so different? Rav Yerucham Levovitz shows how fundamental, enduring principles of the Torah are derived from the Parsha of Korach! (See Da’as Torah.) If so, the Torah is clarified through studying Korach’s argument as well!
Again, we must refer to the intent. The evil intent of Korach was not to clarify Torah concepts, but to destroy Moshe’s prophecies. His intent did not endure.
Another angle is that there is a validity to the arguments of Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai. The mekubalim say that the halacha will be in accordance with Beis Shammai in the future era. The ramifications of this are discussed by Gedolim such as Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Rav Elchonon Wasserman.
Even though the halacha is in accordance with Beis Hillel today, there are hints that the debates actually continue. For example, in Eruvin (6b -7a) it states: “The halacha is like Beis Hillel… One who wants to act like Beis Shammai may do so; one who wants to act like Beis Hillel may do so (as long as he is consistent).” The Gemara objects: If the halacha is like Beis Hillel, how can we allow someone to follow Beis Shammai? One answer given is that there are two opinions. The first view abides by the Bas Kol that proclaimed the halacha to be like Beis Hillel. The second view is Rebbi Yehoshua, who does not allow any supernatural interference with normative halacha. Rebbi Yehoshua is the one who says, “One who wants to act like Beis Shammai may do so; one who wants to act like Beis Hillel may do so…” (HaRitva.) This is very surprising!
Rav Moshe Elazar Horowitz disagrees with this explanation. Rather, he learns that the entire quote was stated by Rebbi Yehoshua. Of course, the halacha is in accordance with Beis Hillel (who were the majority). Nonetheless, Rebbi Yehoshua maintains that if there is sufficient reason, the halacha may turn to the opinion of Beis Shammai. Rav Horowitz concludes that this is actually correct, and for this reason the halacha does occasionally concur with the opinion of Beis Shammai.