Korach vs. Moses: A Biblical Brawl


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:12 p.m.
Torah: Num. 16:1-18:32
Haftarah: I Samuel 11:14-12:22
Havdalah: 9:12 p.m.

‘Rocky” is my favorite movie of all time, a tale of an underdog boxer with incredible determination, getting a shot at the title. Against all odds, Rocky’s goal is to “go the distance,” to still be standing strong at the end of the fight.

I am reminded of Rocky when reading Korach, showcasing a battle of wills between Moses and the parsha’s eponymous character. Their clash commences when Korach confronts Moses: “You have gone too far! For all of the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why did you raise yourself above the Lord’s congregation?” [Numbers 16:3].

The intensity of this relentless barrage can be felt as Korach jabs Moses about the legitimacy of his position and attacks Aaron’s ascension to the high priesthood. To make matters worse, Korach’s verbal blows have the force of not just one man, but rather 250 of his followers assembled against Moses and Aaron. By explicitly contesting the authority of the Israelite’s spiritual leadership, Korach implicitly challenges God, as well.

Moses listens to this verbal assault until finally “he fell on his face.” [Num. 16:4]. While in the context of a boxing match we may understand this as a knock out, our traditional commentators offer explanations about why Moses falls down.

Chizkuni, the 13th-century French sage, asserts that Moses fell from humiliation. Korach’s verbal attack hits a raw nerve with Moses, who still harbors doubts about his own leadership.

According to Rashi, his collapse is connected to Moses’ feelings of embarrassment but not for himself, rather the Children of Israel. This represents the fourth major episode when Moses must pray and petition on the people’s behalf. Rashi relates that Moses is embarrassed to go back to God once again, afraid that the Divine wellspring of compassion had been exhausted.

Moreover, Ibn Ezra frames Moses’ actions as an initiation of prayer. This modality of worship actually has been integrated into the Tachanun section of our weekday morning service.

After Moses’ dramatic fall, the very next verse details Moses’ instructions to Korach about how they will resolve their conflict: “Come morning, the Lord will make known who is His own and who is holy…” [Num. 16:5].

We clearly understand from the context that we have moved to the next round of this fight, yet something noteworthy is missing. Nowhere does it tell us that Moses got up from the ground.

It might sound too obvious to include this detail in the Torah, but this act of resilience is significant for Moses and us, his students generations later.

The question is, what motivates Moses to get up and keep fighting?

All of the interpretations offered about why Moses falls down can actually teach us how he finds the strength to rally and sally forth. For instance, Ibn Ezra’s belief that Moses immediately prostrates himself in prayer underscores that God is always approachable and that teshuva (return, or repentance) is always an option.

Furthermore, Moses’ embarrassment is not focused on the current behavior of Korach and his followers, but on the potential that the vision of the Jewish people settled in the Land of Israel would not be actualized. As much as Moses didn’t want to be the messenger of God in the past, he now wants to lead this people that he has grown to care about so deeply. As their devoted leader, Moses appreciates that their mission is not yet complete, and he has dedicated his life to this purpose.

There is one other clue as to what brings Moses back to his feet. When faced with Korach’s brash attack, Moses tells him that all will be settled in the morning. This approach is more than an attempt to let cooler heads prevail.

By looking to the morning, Moses connects with the very essence of what it means to be an Israelite. Our ancestor Jacob wrestled with an angel until the break of dawn, at which time he was bestowed the name “Yisrael,” one who wrestles with God.

In our story Moses’ actions embrace the spirit of this name, Yisrael, and goes one step further. In his battle with Korach as a defender of the faith, Moses teaches us that Yisrael can also mean one who wrestles for God.

The great heavyweight champion, Jack Dempsey, once said, “A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.” In this week’s Torah portion, Moses shows us that the same can be said of a person of faith. 

Rabbi Charles Savenor is the incoming director of congregational education at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.