How to Fall on Your Face: The Spiritual Art of Leadership

This post is for you if you ever felt small after receiving critique or challenge, or that a leadership burden is too heavy, or that no good deed goes unpunished. (Essentially, this post is for everyone.) And of course, this post is for me and my own roles in government, congregational life and a national nonprofit organization. If we teach what we most need to learn, then this post is especially for me.

What we need to learn, and re-learn, is how to fall on our faces.

This week’s Torah portion (Korach) presents Torah’s sharpest internal challenge. After Moses led the people from bondage, through desert drought and famine, the priest Korach and 250 “leaders of repute” challenged Moses’ leadership. They said, “The whole community is holy – all of them – and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves” above them in leadership? (Numbers 16:3).

How must Moses have felt receiving this withering criticism? Moses never wanted his role: he was summoned against his will (Exodus 4:13). His people complained bitterly, lacking gratitude just after miraculous liberation (Exodus 16:3). They disobeyed just after Sinai (Exodus 32:11). They were too afraid to follow Moses into the Land of Promise (Numbers 14:1-4). Moses’ job was thankless and impossible – and still he pressed on as the world’s humblest person (Numbers 12:3). Even so, Korach challenged Moses.

Moses might have felt fed up or worse, so what Moses did in response – and why he did it – offers profound lessons in leadership and spirituality. Rather than lash out, Moses “listened and fell on his face” (Numbers 16:4).

Our ancestors debated why Moses fell on his face. Rashi imagined that Moses fell on his face desperately seeking divine forgiveness for a perpetually rebellious people (Rashi Num. 16:4). The Saadia Gaon (882-942) imagined that Moses fell on his face to receive a divine vision of what to do next. My favorite explanation is from Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893): Moses fell on his face in prayer, and to remind others of when they themselves had fallen on their faces amidst an experience of profound awe (Ha’amek Davar Num. 16:4). Falling on his face, leading by example, was Moses’ way to remind others to do the same.

We can’t know for sure why Moses fell on his face, but his example offers us some lessons. One is that Moses listened to the rebels: whatever his own personal reaction, still he listened before he acted.

Next, Moses took a physical posture of submission and humility amidst rebellion and rejection against all he stood for. How many of us can muster such depth of presence amidst a core challenge to all we understand ourselves to be and all we stand for in the world?

Lastly, Moses took seriously his calling to lead by example, to remind others to find awe and humility within themselves by first displaying it himself. Precisely when his premise of leadership was most challenged, Moses rose to the occasion by going all the way down in a posture of humble submission.

* * *

All of us are leaders. Whatever our roles or titles, we all influence others: that’s the very definition of leadership. And as leaders, we’re all responsible for examples we set, messages we send, how well we listen, how we react (even and especially when others push our buttons), and how we gently remind people of deep truths within them. In Moses’ case, the higher the challenge, the lower Moses went to the ground to do just that.

Find your inner Moses. Don’t be afraid to fall on your face.

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