After the deaths of Korach and all his followers, and the plague that was ה׳'s response to the people protesting in favor of Korah, the people cry to Moshe:
It’s interesting how Onkelos translates this:
בְּלַעַת אַרְעָא was the pit that swallowed up Dathan and Aviram, מוֹתָנָא was the plague, but what was קְטֵילַת חַרְבָּא, ”killed by the sword“?
The series of disasters that culminates in the people’s cry started with the מעפילים. What do all of them have in common? The Netsiv looks at the punctuation of the next pasuk. כל הקרב הקרב looks like a “duplicative intensive” (I made that term up to sound smart), like וְהָיָה אִם שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ, ”if you truly hearken“, or עָלֹה נַעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ כִּי יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָהּ, ”we will certainly go up because we certainly can“. So Artscroll translates here, “Everyone who approaches closer”. But here, there is a פסיק, a vertical bar, in the Masoretic text between the two words.
The most recent series of sins—the מעפילים and the rebellions of Korach and Dathan and Aviram—are different from the complaints of פרשת בהעלותך and the sin of the spies. They are potentially הקרב הקרב, a result of too much דבקות ואהבה. And the fact is, that such דבקות gets punished as well.
ר׳ יהודה בן בתירא's complaint is that the accusation of being a מחלל שבת is (if it’s true) לשון הרע, and if it’s not, is מוציא שם רע. But then how does calling him one of the מעפילים help? Moshe describes them as (דברים א:מג) ותמרו את פי ה׳. It’s still לשון הרע! The answer is that the sin of the מעפילים really wasn’t that bad:
And בנות צלפחד emphasize it, to point out how just as their father loved ארץ ישראל, so do they. ר׳ יהודה בן בתירא comes up in another aggadah:
The בני אפרים and the מעפילים were כל הקרב הקרב.
And we’ve discussed before the fact that, fundamentally, Korach was right: (במדבר טז:ג) כל העדה כלם קדשים ובתוכם ה׳.
Korach, arguably, was also acting as כל הקרב הקרב.
Even Dathan and Aviram, seen by חז״ל as the ultimate villains in the wilderness, are right: (במדבר טז:יד) אף לא אל ארץ זבת חלב ודבש הביאתנו ותתן לנו נחלת שדה וכרם. And their motives, at least initially, were for the good of the people:
That’s an astonishing Midrash: the שטרים who suffered for בני ישראל, who allowed themselves to be beaten to protect them and became the שבעים איש מזקני ישראל, they were דתן ואבירם!
So בני ישראל's question is a good one: אבדנו כלנו אבדנו…האם תמנו לגוע. What do we do when our religious and moral intuition conflicts with the absolute law. We saw last week that there is a place for חוצפא, where asking for forgiveness is better than asking for permission. Because if you ask permission, the answer will have to be “no”. And that, essentially, is the answer:
ה׳'s answer is that there is already a hierarchy of authority. Obey it and nobody gets hurt.
But that doesn’t work, especially in times when we can’t simply ask G-d what to do. There has always been a dialectic between personal autonomy and halakhic authority (see the first Orthodox Forum volume edited by Rabbi Moshe Z. Sokol, Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy). There isn’t an easy answer, and I won’t try to give one. The nature of Judaism is the acceptance of intellectual conflict:
We are left with the mishna in Pirkei Avot:
So we muddle through, realizing the risk of כלנו אבדנו but always act לשם שמים. And that is all ה׳ asks of us.