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Parashat Korah 5784

July 1, 2024
by Cantor Robin Anne Joseph (’96)

A D’var Torah for Parashat Korah
By Cantor Robin Anne Joseph (AJR ’96)

“I’m falling on my face” is a phrase I heard many-a-time growing up. What it usually meant was “I’m exhausted,” “I have no more energy,” or “proceed without me.” When my mother would say it out loud, I knew enough to give her some space, or some time to rest, or get my tuchus in gear and help cook dinner.

Thus far, there has been no end (nor is there any end in sight) to the amount of rebellion Moses has faced from the muttering Israelites. And so when Korah, a Levite, a trusted member of the priestly class, stages what might amount to a libertarian coup with his Reuvenite buddies, Dathan and Abiram, plus 250 chieftains, Moses must be at his wit’s end.

As Rashi reminds us, “this was already the fourth offense on their part: when they sinned by worshipping the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:11)…in the case of the “people who complained”, (Numbers 11:1)… [and] at the incident of the “spies”, (Numbers 14:13)” (Rashi on Numbers 16:4) So, when Moses falls on his face—three times in Parshat Korah—I’ll bet he is exhausted. Just how much rebellion can one leader take?

In this parashah It’s a three-fer. What’s interesting to me, in addition to the number of times Moses (and then Aaron) drop to the ground, is the progression of the different responses in which falling on one’s face elicits. While G*d plays an active part in meting out punishments to the rebels, it is our human leaders, Moses and then Aaron, who first instigate and then mitigate the oncoming wrath of ‘ה.

When Moses falls on his face the first time, the rebels Korah, Dathan and Abiram have just challenged his authority and that of his brother Aaron, the High Priest. “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and ‘ה is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above ‘ה’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3) In a gesture of humility (Or HaHaim on Numbers 16:4) or prayer (Rashbam on Numbers 16:4) or perhaps in a prophetic state (Ibn Ezra on Numbers 16:4) Moses prostrates himself and devises a plan by which ‘ה will designate who is the chosen one for the trio—they or Aaron.

But Moses is not merely fending off disgruntled employees; he also has a disgruntled boss to contend with. Both Moses and Aaron hit the deck (Numbers 16:22) when G*d becomes so exasperated with the entire Israelite community who have gathered to support Korah that G*d says, “Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!” (Numbers 16:21) In an Abrahamic moment, Moses and Aaron argue that an entire community should not pay for the misdeeds of one person. G*d seems to reconsider and tells Moses to tell the community to separate itself from the ringleaders of the coup. Moses delivers the message, the people obey, and the community is thus saved from the subterranean fate of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.

The final time that Moses and Aaron fall on their faces, is in reaction to very much the same statement from G*d as the last time, “Remove yourselves from this community, that I may annihilate them in an instant.” (Numbers 17:10) Again, Moses and Aaron appear to ready themselves to argue against the obliteration of the Israelites. Only this time, G*d doesn’t wait for supplications nor for Moses to prophesy a plan on G*d’s behalf. As exhausted as Moses and Aaron may well be, they see that G*d has already let loose a plague on the community and so they spring into action to help alleviate the spread.

On Moses’s orders, Aaron takes a fire pan and incense and makes the ritual atonement for the community. And in an almost Super Hero move, Aaron “stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked.” (Numbers 17:13) “He (Aaron) seized the Angel of Death and stopped him despite himself,” according to Rashi.

I love that in this parashah “falling on their faces” seems to mean anything but being exhausted. Instead, there is a steady progression of activity and ko’ah from the dynamic duo of Moses and Aaron, even as they are fending off rebellion. Between Moses facing his challengers to prophesy G*d’s might, to Moses and Aaron staving off the destruction of the Israelite community—not once but twice—falling on one’s face seems to act as a reset button for collecting oneself and calmly assessing a situation.

It is also a springboard for action. Moses and Aaron have the hutzpah (or the authority?) to put their thumbs on the scale of destiny. Through prophecy, involvement, and intervention, Moses and Aaron do not stand idly by (or remain face down on the ground) while their authority is challenged. Nor do they let G*d (entirely) fight their battles for them. When Moses and Aaron are falling on their faces, rather than a sign of exhaustion, it seems to be a mechanism by which the two brothers regain their strength, their perspective and control over their leadership.                                             _______________
Cantor Robin Anne Joseph (’96) teaches cantillation as part of the faculty at AJR. A musician and composer, Robin’s liturgical and folk-rock compositions can be found through Transcontinental Music Publications and OySongs and sung at a synagogues world-wide. Past-president of ARC (the Association of Rabbis and Cantors), past-president of the Women Cantors’ Network, and the current president of Kol Hazzanim—the Westchester Community of Cantors, Robin has served the congregation of Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY for the last 42 years.