We know the rule from dueling: When one man challenges the other, the recipient gets to pick the weapon of choice.
This is, we know, how gentleman duel. But Korach was no gentleman.
So when Moshe responds to Korach’s challenge with:
And Moses said to Korah, Be you and all your company before the Lord, you, and they, and Aaron, tomorrow; And take every man his censer, and put incense in them, and bring before the Lord every man his censer, two hundred and fifty censers; you also, and Aaron, each of you his censer. (Bamedbar 16:16-17)
Why does Korach, without hesitation, negotiation, or any complaint, promptly agree to the terms?
And they took every man his censer, and put fire in them, and laid incense on it, and stood in the door of the Tent of Meeting with Moses and Aaron. (Bamidbar 16:18)
Korach has done an extraordinary act, one which reveals his thinking! Korach clearly feels he is going to win in the challenge. It is Moshe who is flustered and angry; Korach seems entirely in command. There is no doubt in his mind that he will win. Why?
The answer is that Korach remained a product of his upbringing, while Moshe had grown beyond it! Korach was raised in a world of pagan deities. Pagan deities, like the gods on Olympus, or the volcano god, are not actually much concerned with the affairs of man. But they are concerned with maximizing their own gain. In other words, the invented gods of mankind are greedy and selfish.
And so Korach knows that his challenge is going to work, for a very simple reason: 250 pans of incense is a bigger (and thus better) sacrifice to Hashem than the single censer of Aaron. It is 250 to 1. It is obvious.
And if Hashem were like other deities, then Korach would have been right. But in all the instructions about sacrifices that Moshe handed down, Korach had never understood that the beneficiary of a sacrifice is not, really, G-d at all. The purpose of a sacrifice, just like the purpose of a moral mitzvah, is to improve the person, not give presents to G-d! Egyptian and Babylonian and Greek gods all could be bribed – indeed, they needed to be bribed or, in the minds of ancient people, the gods would punish mankind. For example, if one did not offer the rain god a sacrifice, then rain would not fall.
Korach failed to understand that Hashem is different. He did not grasp that the relationship between man and G-d is at once both intimate and interconnected. G-d does not care about numbers: he cares about the individual relationship. Or as Hashem, speaking through Ezekiel puts it: I don’t want your sacrifices. I want you to practice loving-kindness with one another. The sacrifice is there to help us, not Hashem!
This also explains why, in the parallel and political rebellion, Dathan and Aviram did not talk about Hashem, or offer an offering. To one who sees the world through pagan eyes, the gods do not care who actually holds the reins of human power, as long as the deity receives his tribute. So Dathan and Aviram challenge Moshe for political leadership, clearly thinking that Hashem would not notice or care who was in charge of the Jews. After all, G-d would be placated with the incense from the 250.
The opposite, of course, is true. The more we involve Hashem in our lives, the more intimate our relationship becomes. And this is because our religious existence is not tied to bribing Hashem, but to growing ever-closer to Him. And we do this, in part, through loving-kindness – through showing our consideration for all those who are made in G-d’s image.
There is no pagan religion that can fathom loving-kindness. The gods of the pagan world are petty and small: they are as wise and restrained as two year-old children would be if they had superhuman powers. Those deities needed to be bribed.
But Hashem does not want our bribery. And he does not want our mere servitude. He wants the involvement and mutual growth that can only come through a long and mutually challenging marriage. Korach died because, until the end, he did not understand that the god of the Jews is different from every other deity in the ancient world.