Rabbi Michael Bernstein
Vanished without a Trace
Faced with Korach’s rebellion, Moses declares to the Jewish people (16:28-30), “With this you shall know that God has sent me to perform all these deeds, that it was not my own idea, if [Korach and his followers] die as all men do, if they meet the fate of all men, then God did not send me. But if God forms a new creation and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them and all they possess, and they go down living to the netherworld, then you shall know that these men infuriated God.”
Why did Moses make his vindication dependent on Korach dying a bizarre death? Why couldn’t he say simply that if Korach dies a sudden death, it is proof positive that he, Moses, is the rightful leader? Why was there a need for a “new creation”? Furthermore, why was it necessary for the earth to swallow all of Korach’s possessions?
Moses wanted to demonstrate that challenges to the Torah and distortions of its concepts have no place in this world. God would obliterate Korach and his heretical view of Torah until not even the slightest vestige of anything connected with him or his identity remained in existence.
The theme that there is no place in creation for those who seek to thwart God’s will appears frequently in the Torah. God commands us to obliterate all traces of Amalek, to blot out their remembrance. Likewise, God commands that we incinerate lock, stock and barrel a city whose inhabitants have all practiced idolatry. When the Egyptians refused to let the Jewish people travel three days into the desert to worship God, He afflicted them with three days of a palpable darkness that immobilized them completely. The message was clear. Those who would block God’s mission for the Jewish people might just as well not exist.
What Moses Heard
On more than one occasion, the Jewish people beleaguered Moses in the desert, complaining vociferously about the lack of water and meat among other privations. Korach, however, was the first to challenge Moses’ authority directly. Moses reacted in an unusual manner (16:4), “And Moses heard and fell on his face.” What is the meaning of this reaction? What did he “hear”? Why did he “fall on his face”?
At first glance, the words “and Moses heard” are superfluous. Of course, he heard. After all, they were speaking to him. In earlier episodes of malcontents complaining to Moses, the Torah never tells us “he heard”; why does the Torah do so here? According to several Midrashic sources, (Sanhedrin 110a, Targum Yonasan, Tanchuma 10, Midrash Rabbah 18), the Torah implies that Korach slandered Moses with charges of adultery. Other sources and commentators, however, take the words at face value. If so, what did he “hear”?
Perhaps the most common cause of rift and rebellion is the feeling of being ignored and disenfranchised, the feeling that no one is listening. In fact, conflicts can very often be resolved by the simple act of attentive listening, even when no solutions are offered. People will tolerate partial or inadequate solutions, or even no solutions at all, as long as they and their complaints are validated, as long as they feel their concerns are being taken into account. Revolutionary wars have been fought because people felt they were denied “representation.”
When Moses saw the people were in revolt, his first response was to listen carefully to the complaints of Korach and his followers. He showed them that “he heard,” that he understood their frustration. Regardless of the relative merits of Korach’s complaint, Moses conveyed importance to Korach by listening attentively.
Then Moses “fell on his face” in response to Korach’s criticism (16:3) that Moses had “exalted himself excessively above the congregation.” The Ohr Hachaim explains that by falling on his face Moses expressed humility rather than fear. Had Moses really been driven by a desire for self-aggrandizement, even in a small way, he surely would have responded with arrogant anger. By his humble response, Moses demonstrated that personal ambition was not a part of his motivation. Although Moses failed to quell peacefully the only revolt that directly challenged his role as God’s chosen leader, he demonstrated to all future generations the hallmarks of leadership in the face of dissension and rebellion.