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The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.
In this parashah, the Israelite people come dangerously close to splitting apart. A man named Korah leads a group of followers to challenge Moshe and Aharon‘s leadership. Korah has powerful arguments, but in a dramatic test, God demonstrates again that Moshe and Aharon are God’s choice to guide the people. The rebels are punished, and the role of all the priests and Levites, not just Aharon, is clarified. Finally, there are laws specifying that the “first born” of plants, animals, and human beings is to be dedicated to God; this is the source of the ritual of pidyon haben, or redemption of the first-born.
“They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above God’s assembly?”
When Moses heard this, he fell face down.” (Numbers 16:3-4)
Moshe does not get immediately defensive or angry with the assembled crowd, nor does he assert his authority. Instead, he humbles himself, and asks the rebels about their motivation. He also points out, a few verses later, that they should have no problem with Aharon; it’s interesting that Moshe comes to Aharon’s defense before defending himself.
Continuing our study of Moshe’s reactions to leadership challenges, a famous Hasidic commentator offers a different kind of explanation of Moshe “falling facedown.” R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (lived in Russia, died in 1812), the founding rabbi of the Lubavitch (or Chabad) Hasidic movement, says that Moshe fell on his face because he really had to ask himself if Korah has a valid point:
It would have been fitting for Moshe to answer him immediately, so why did he first fall on his face? Moshe, our teacher, had a feeling that maybe they were asking him this from On High, and Korah was only a messenger. Thus, he first fell on his face for self-reflection, to see if in truth he had any arrogance. After he thoroughly checked himself, and found no trace of pride, he understood that he [Korah] was not a messenger from On High, but was a divider [of people], and so he answered as he did. (Tanya, quoted in Itturei Torah)
I think this is a very psychologically provocative midrash. R. Shneur Zalman (also known as the Ba’al HaTanya after his most important book) challenges us to follow Moshe’s example by first reflecting on our own actions in any situation of conflict or anger. In effect, this midrash says to us: even Moshe had to consider the possibility that Korah had a valid point, or at least that his accusations contained some kernel of truth.
In the rabbinic tradition, Moshe is the archetypal good man, and Korah the very symbol of selfishness and evil–so how much more are the rest of us, all the “in-between” people, challenged to consider the possibility that other’s words may contain painful truths.
What’s so brilliant about this midrash is that it refuses to provide any easy answers to human relationships. It would be too easy to say that any situation of conflict reflects equally badly on both parties, and thus slide into a kind of psychological relativism. Yes, sometimes people do bad things out of their own pain, but this way of seeing things gets people “off the hook” for their actions.
On the other hand, it would also be too easy to say that some people do evil or hurtful things simply because they are evil people–but this does not account for Judaism’s insistence that all people, even Korah, are made in the Divine Image. Even Korah could have been the agent of holy truth. As it turned out, he wasn’t, but there was no easy way, other than real soul-searching, to either “validate” Korah’s feelings or write him off as an arrogant usurper.
According to the Ba’al HaTanya, some people may be bad, but we must always be open to hearing the truth from any source. Or, as Kolel’s webmaster often says, we must “seek first to understand,” before we react in a situation of conflict. Who knows–we might be in the presence of a “divider,” or we might be in the presence of “messenger from On High.”
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