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Moses heard, and he fell on his face (16:4).
The opening verses of Parashat Korach relate the well-known story of Korach and his followers banding themselves against Moses and Aaron. They demanded a share in both the leadership and the priesthood (implied in 16:3). When Moses first heard about their plans, he fell on his face (above). The Midrash (Tanchuma 4 to Parashat Korach) says that this reaction was a display of Moses’ despair in feeling powerless to appeal to G-d to forgive the people. They had worshipped the Golden Calf, grumbled against Him for no reason (11:1-2), and heeded the negative reports of the Spies. Each time, Moses prayed for them. Once more they had defied G-d: but this time he felt that He would no longer take his entreaties on behalf of the people seriously.
The problem with this explanation is that Moses did make a request of G-d later on. Soon afterwards, Moses unsuccessfully tried to dissuade Korach from going forward with his plans. In return, Datan and Aviram, his two chief allies, challenged Moses’ competence and integrity – with the claim that he did not manage to bring them into the Promised Land. Only then did Moses pray to G-d, ‘not to accept their offerings’. And soon afterwards, he entreated Him with the words, ‘Shall one man sin and You be angry with the whole assembly?’ (ibid: 22)
Why, therefore, did Moses not use these words at the beginning? Why, according to the Midrash, did he initially fall onto his face out of despair and not in prayer? Why did he not, instead, pray for Korach’s rebellion to fail?
One different approach brings out the very essence of Moses’ character. This may be illustrated by the following story:
One of the great Rabbis and most famous Baalei Mussar of the last century requested his sons to say Kaddish for a full twelve months after his death, instead of the usual eleven. (The Talmud brings the tradition that the Divine judgment on the wicked lasts for twelve months. The custom is for Kaddish is recited for only eleven months, so as not to count one’s parents amongst the wicked.) He asked them to do this in the full conviction that he needed that extra merit to ease Divine judgment.
Moses was noted for his great humility (12:3). A humble person looks over his past deeds, and highlights his own personal shortcomings and errors of judgment, with view to self-improvement.
That is the reason Moses fell on his face. If the atmosphere for such a revolt was taking shape, he believed that he himself had some responsibility for it. This is explained below.
The situation may be compared to riotous behavior in a classroom. Although initially, the ribaldry has to be calmed down and the offenders dealt with, such behavior does not reflect well on the teacher. He may well feel that the whole affair might have been avoided in the first place had he been firmer disciplinarian – had he created a securer classroom learning environment.
This could have been the basis of Moses’ feelings of despair. The weaknesses in his system of his administration may have created the right setting for Korach’s attempting uprising. For when Moses was advised to delegate administration and justice, he was told to select ‘men of standing, wisdom, of deep understanding, and known to their respective tribes’ (Deut. 1:14). However the Torah records that the leaders actually selected by Moses were ‘men of standing, wisdom, and known to their respective tribes (ibid. 15), but the Midrash (Sifri, Devarim 15) observes that they were not recorded for having deep understanding. Nevertheless, Moses appointed them, as they were the best he could find.
It seems possible therefore that Moses, in his great humility, suspected that he might have selected the wrong people, and erred by not consulting with G-d about the suitability for each one.
This principle may be seen in the story of Samuel’s anointing of David, to be King. The Almighty told Samuel to go to the house of Jesse of Bethlehem, ‘because I have seen a suitable personality for a king amongst his sons’ (Sam. I 16:1). When Eliav, his eldest son, passed before him, Samuel said that he certainly should be G-d’s chosen. However, G-d’s reply to Samuel was:
Do not look at his appearance and tall stature for I have rejected him. For it (i.e. the true personality) is not as Man sees – Man sees the eyes, but G-d sees the heart (ibid. 7).
David, the worthy successor to the monarchy was at that moment looking after the sheep – considered too unimportant to come into question. But when he was sent for, He said to Samuel:
Arise! Annoint him, for he indeed is the man! (ibid. 12).
Thus Samuel was guided by G-d to appoint someone who in normal life would have never have come into question for the key position. Moses, by contrast, did not find people who were fully worthy, but he nevertheless appointed the best he could find. He may well have criticized himself for not consulting with G-d about the true abilities and integrity of each member of his team. The people to whom he should have delegated authority were not the most obvious ones…
That is why Moses fell on his face. In his great humility, he believed that he himself created the atmosphere of less-than-perfect delegated administration and justice. That was the setting in which discontent could germinate and ultimately promote the environment where Korach’s personal grievances – suitably disguised for public consumption – might, and did win support. That was the reason for his own despair – he suspected that his own earlier possible mistakes were the cause of Korach’s uprising. Perhaps – just for split second – he thought Korach was what he deserved (c.f. Rashi’s comment on Gen. 44.17). And the ‘trial by incense’ might just show that Korach’s claims had some place. [Only when his representatives subsequently told Moses to his face that he failed to bring the Israelites to the Promised Land – avoiding the facts of the case - did Moses see the utter emptiness of the rebels’ claim.]
In conclusion – this may be one of the reasons for the following text in the regular Amidah: “Restore our judges… and advise us… and remove from us grief and sighing.” The social consequences of poor administration and dispensation of justice create the tensions and general discontent under which rebellion and discontent may germinate and flourish.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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