Pshat in Midrash
While we often think of Midrash as something other than a straightforward commentary to the Biblical text, it does in fact contain a great deal of such commentary. These plain explanations are interspersed between the more typical "midrashic" interpretations but should not be overlooked because of their simplicity; nor should they be confused with the more typical "drash". They should not be approached in the same manner as other Midrashic passages but as if they were standard medieval commentary. Confusing the two results in attempts at interpretation that rather miss the mark.
And HaShem spoke unto Moses, saying:
'Speak unto Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, that he take up the fire-pans out of the burning, and scatter thou the fire yonder; for they are become holy;
even the fire-pans of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and let them be made beaten plates for a covering of the altar--for they are become holy, because they were offered before HaShem--that they may be a sign unto the children of Israel.'
And Eleazar the priest took the brazen fire-pans, which they that were burnt had offered; and they beat them out for a covering of the altar,
to be a memorial unto the children of Israel, to the end that no common man, that is not of the seed of Aaron, draw near to burn incense before HaShem; that he fare not as Korah, and as his company; as HaShem spoke unto him by the hand of Moses.
The Sifri Korach, 4 (in other editions 117) says the following:
Memorial - hence we learn that Korach was from the ones who were swallowed (by the earth) and from the burnt.
At first glance this appears to be a "midrash pliah", an amazing non-sequitor. How do you arrive to this conclusion from the word "memorial"?
The correct approach here is one that identifies the difficulty in the verse that this comments attempts to solve, just as one would do when trying to understand a difficult Rashi.
First, we must take a step away form the verse and review the story of Korach. Reading carefully we find that there were in fact two separate rebellions against Moshe, or, as we say now, two political parties. The first one, headquartered somewhere around the tents of Dasan and Aviram sought ecclesiastical reform. They wished to open the priesthood to all people and create a religious democracy. The other group gathered around the Tent of Meeting. They were 250 princes of the assembly and they advocated a religious aristocracy- oligarchy. They did not wish to turn over leadership to the people, pursuing instead the priesthood of the worthy.
The earth swallowed the first group - "and the earth opened its mouth and it swallowed them and their houses and all the people of Korach and all the property (16, 32)." The second group was burnt - "and fire came out from before Hashem and consumed 250 men, the bearers of incense: (16, 35).
The verses here are deliberately unclear as to which of these groups did Korach himself belong and how he died. In fact, a later verse suggests that Korach was in the first group- "and the sons of Eliav, Nemuel and Dasan and Aviram, he is Dasan and Aviram the called of the congregation who incited against Moshe and Aharon in the congregation of Korach when they incited against the L-rd. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and Korach in the death of the congregation as the fire consumed the 250 men and it was a sign (Bamidbar 26, 9-10)."
If so, however, how would the melting down of the incense censors of the 250 men be a memorial for the rebellion of Korach? He was swallowed and not burnt; he was in the first group and not in the second?
The Sifri resolves this difficulty by positing that Korach was behind both parties without outwardly identifying with either one. "And Korach ben Itzhar… took Dasan and Aviram… and On ben Peles (and they stood up before Hashem)… and 250 men…"
As any astute politician, Korach took pains to shape public opinion and to hedge his bets so as to unseat Moshe and Aharon as the supreme religious authority. At the same time, he remained the senior statesman, behind the scenes and apparently above the fracas that was noisily taking place all around him. When he was swallowed up and also burnt, his game became publicly exposes. All could now see that he was the mover and inspiration behind both rebellions and part and parcel of both groups.
The Sifri resolves an exegetical difficulty in a straightforward and rational manner in the same approach followed later by a number of "pshat" commentators. Such passages need to be identified so that they can be studied in the same way that one studies Rashi, Rambam, Ibn Ezra and other classical commentators. Failing to appreciate pshat comments within midrash, leads one into the thicket of convoluted explanations that apply the methodology of studying drash to what is really pshat.
1 This is quite apart form the question of whether Midrashic comments are often "omek hapshat", the true simple meaning of a verse if approached with a full armamentarium of grammar, syntax, idiom, syntax and local and distant context. What we discuss now is straightforward pshat exegesis, of a kind that could be just as easily employed by classic pshat commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, Rashbam an others.
2 See the commentary Zera Avraham and Sifri Dbei Rav to this passage.
3 This approach follows Netsiv's commentary.
4 See Ibn Ezra and Ramban