The story of Korach's failed rebellion against Moses teaches a humbling lesson of humility.
Korach, a Levite, led a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and the priesthood of Aaron. The Torah describes the incident with a succession of verbs describing forceful action.
Korach took men and they rose up and assembled against Moses and Aaron. Korach and his followers charged that Moses and Aaron had arrogated to themselves authority over the people.
Korach was headstrong and showed no willingness for constructive dialogue and compromise. In contrast to Korach’s behavior, Moses’ first reaction was “to fall on his face.” This Hebrew idiom can be interpreted as an expression of prayer, reflection or exasperation. It was certainly not hostility or aggression, which are implicit in Korach’s words: “You have gone too far! All the people are holy … Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” (Number 16:3).
Moses pointed out to Korach and the other Levites that they had been set apart for special duties in the Mishkan. Why would they seek the priesthood, too? They had no cause to challenge Aaron’s position. Moses summoned the secondary leaders of the rebellion but they would not meet with him. Instead they sent a message, accusing him of being dominating: “For what reason should we meet with you? You have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey [Egypt] to die in this wilderness. Do you now also need to demonstrate your power over us? We will not come.” (Numbers 16:12-14).
Moses was incensed. The upshot of the rebellion requires us to suspend disbelief, as we read about the disappearance of “all Korach’s people and all their possessions … the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up” and “the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.”
This brings to mind the following: A chasid of the Sadagora rebbe asked him, “Our sages say, ‘And there is not a thing that has not its place.’ And so man has his own place. Then why do people sometimes feel so crowded?” The rebbe replied, “Because each man wants to occupy the place of the other.”
There is a talmudic story about a gathering of villagers in the synagogue. The rabbis of the community took seats together in the front row. Rabbi Nachman bar Isaac, arriving a few minutes late, took a seat in the rear. Another rabbi spotted him and called out, “Rabbi Nachman, come up front and take a seat with us. A man of your learning should not sit in the back row.”
“Thank you for the invitation,” Rabbi Nachman answered. “While it would be an honor to sit with you, I am content where I am. After all, we have been taught, ‘It is not the place that gives honor to the person, but the person who gives honor to the place.”Rabbi Nachman stayed in the back, and all were reminded that humility was his claim to greatness.
Rabbi Bradley Bleefeld, a Philadelphia-based rabbi and author of Saving the World Entire, has written, “A person of true merit does not need to occupy a special place of honor; it is his presence that enhances the place. Rabbi Nachman also reminds us that a person with sufficient self-esteem does not always have to be in the limelight but feels at ease when he ‘takes a backseat’ to others.”
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is the chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home. Email him at: [email protected]