This haftara is a prequel to the one we read before Purim, and a postscript to Shavuot when we learned that every generation gets the leaders it deserves. The haftara stands in symmetry with our parsha, not only because Shmuel is a descendant of Korach, but because each of them is making a similar political argument before the People of Israel. In fact, it says in the Midrash (Bamidbar Raba 18:16 and elsewhere) that Korach saw himself as superior to Aharon because through Ruach HaKodesh he knew his descendent Shmuel would serve as prophet, priest, and king, and would anoint both kings of Israel.
In our haftara the people have appealed to Shmuel to appoint a king over them to help them in their war against Amon. Shmuel is disturbed by their request for many of the same reasons that Korach distrusted the rule of Moshe and Aharon. It is worth understanding why Korach’s argument against Moshe was found to be utterly without merit while Shmuel’s is held up as the apogee of righteousness. In the interest of time and space, we will only be able to look at one important difference which is particularly emphasized in our haftara. But first, it will be instructive to look more closely at the similarities.
Shmuel was a navi, and Korach had Ruach HaKodesh. Shmuel was a political and spiritual leader of Israel, and so was Korach. Korach was also the richest man in Israel. His wealth was legendary; to this day there is a well-known expression in modern Hebrew to be “as rich as Korach.” Korach believed his wealth imbued him with greater dignity and status and thus suited him particularly for leadership.
It is interesting to look at Korach’s well-known challenge regarding tzitzit in this light. He asked Moshe: If he were to possess a garment of all techelet, would it be necessary for him to attach the string of techelet to this garment? Techelet was very expensive and a garment of techelet was beyond the means of all but the wealthiest people. Korach was implying that the mitzvah of tzitzit had been given as a sop to the poor, and a rich man such as himself should be exempt.
Shmuel, on the other hand, makes a great show of his own humility and the way in which he distanced himself from amassing wealth during the term of his leadership. This was noteworthy in part because of the abuses of his predecessors, the sons of Eli, but it also stands in meaningful counterpoint to his ancestor Korach.
In this spirit we can see that the most significant and obvious difference is how each stood to gain personally from the outcome of the debate. Korach was seeking to undermine Moshe’s centralization of authority to his own advantage; he expected to be elevated into the resulting power vacuum. Shmuel was disturbed by the abuses he foresaw of those who would wield the absolute power of monarchy, but he revolted against this for the sake of Israel; he had nothing to gain personally from the outcome. Indeed, immediately after anointing Shaul, he began a process of receding from public life that would culminate in the anointment of David HaMelech.