Torah Message from Rabbi Moldovan
Joining Korach in the rebellion against Moshe Rabbeinu were two hundred and fifty great men. Rashi, quoting the Midrash Tanchuma, questions the motivations of these men in undertaking the seemingly futile rebellion against Moshe Rabbeinu. He points out that they were not foolish people, and answers that they ‘sinned with their souls.’
The commentaries point out that it very difficult to see how this answer the initial question of why they embarked on this rebellion. Indeed it is not clear at all what it means that ‘they sinned with their souls.” The great leader of the Volozhin Yeshiva of pre-war Lithuania, the Netsiv, offers a fascinating explanation that answers these questions. He begins by pointing out that the two hundred and fifty men are always mentioned separately from Korach, Dasan and Aviram. Moreover, they were punished differently from those three evildoers. They were punished by being burnt by a fire from the Holy of Holies while Korach and his cohorts suffered the far greater punishment of being swallowed alive into the ground.
The Netsiv explains that the reason for these differences is because the intentions of the two hundred and fifty men were totally different from those of Korach, Dasan and Aviram. The latter were motivated by jealousy and desire for power while the two hundred and fifty men had essentially pure motives. They desired to attain greater closeness to Hashem by participating in the service of the Kohanim. They realized that they would die for doing this yet they were willing to give up their lives in order to attain this perceived greater ‘closeness’ to Hashem. Because their intentions, though clearly misguided, were pure, they were killed in a more elevated fashion, by a holy fire. This explains why they embarked on this seemingly foolish endeavor and answers what Rashi means by the words, ‘they sinned with their souls.’ It means that they willingly went against Hashem’s will to get closer to Him with the awareness that they would die as a result.
It is clear that despite their pure motives, the two hundred and fifty men made a terrible mistake in their desire for closeness to Hashem. Their error was that they failed to realize that the only way to truly cleave to Hashem is by doing His Will, not by performing actions that one thinks will bring him closer to Hashem if they contradict the Torah.