I was recently reading the great book of letters by the Steipler Rav, “Kiryana D’Igrasa”. In one of these, he was responding to a correspondent who had listed some of his problems. It should be emphasized that the Steipler was not one to make light of other people’s problems, but at the end of his three-page response, in which he considered each problem in detail, he wrote: “But do you want to know what your real problem is? In your letter, you use the word `I’ six times.”
Korach and his cohorts approach Moshe Rabbeinu with a claim against his leadership. They demand to know why it is that he has set himself and Aharon HaKohen as the leaders of the people. Moshe responds with a challenge to bring an offering of Ketores (the mixture of incense offered twice daily in the Mishkan and later in the more permanent Mikdosh) and allow G-d to make known who His chosen leaders are.
Why did Moshe choose Ketores as the means for clarification of who was right?
The Midrash Tanchuma at the end of Parshas Tetzaveh indicates that G-d loves Ketores more than any other Sacrifice. Other Sacrifices are all for the sake of the person bring it. A Korban Chatas (Sin Offering) is for an unintentional transgression. Other kinds of Sacrifices are for communal transgressions, intentional transgressions, sins of thought and so on. Ketores is an exception. It is brought solely in order to bring joy to G-d. It conveys no personal benefit to the one who brings it.
Further, there was a way to know whether the Ketores was brought with the right intentions and the right state of mind resulting in it being accepted, or not. If the cloud of incense looks like a tamar, a date palm, or what we would call a mushroom cloud, then it has been accepted. If it goes straight up in a thin column then it has not. (Yoma 53)
Acceptable Ketores is about doing something purely because it is the right thing to do, because he wants and loves it. Any taint of personal benefit ruins it.
Not that there is anything wrong with getting personal spiritual benefit, after all, that is exactly what the other Korbanos achieve and G-d requires that we bring them in specific circumstances.
However, there is something above and beyond that. If everything we do is always for “I”, then there is is something missing, even if the acts we do are mitzvos. Relationships, in particular, require a lack of ‘I’ in order to flourish. Relationship with G-d requires this no less.
This was Moshe Rabeinu’s insight. Korach and co. claimed that they were acting on behalf of the ‘Jewish people inc.’, who were all equally holy and therefore had no need for a singular leadership. There was, they claimed, nothing personal in their complaint, they were simply acting in the public interest. Moshe’s answer makes clear that he saw straight through this façade and accused Korach of seeking Aharon’s position of Kohen Gadol. This is why he chose Ketores. He wants to demonstrate definitively who is truly acting on behalf of the people, with no personal consideration.
Korach argued a point. It may have been a legitimate point. However, credibility requires selflessness. Is there an “I’ involved or are my truly committed to the cause.
Moshe looked at Korach and saw an “I” and he knew that Korach cannot be truly speaking for the Jewish people. He knew that Korach could not possibly be the future leader of our people.