A Bow For One's Students
“Moses heard and fell on his face.” (16:4)
I wonder how I would have reacted upon seeing Moshe bow and fall on his face.
I suspect that I would have immediately fallen on my face and waited for Moshe to signal that it was all right to rise. But the people did not fall on their faces; they watched, unmoved by the reaction of their great leader. Perhaps they shrugged off this terrifying scene because this was not the first time: “Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before the entire congregation of the assembly of the Children of Israel.” (Numbers 14:5)
Is it possible that Moshe and Aaron were not bowing in weakness, or sadness, or fear, but as a lesson? How was it received, if it was a lesson?
“Then Israel prostrated himself towards the head of the bed.” (Genesis 47:31) “As the proverb says; “When the fox has his hour, bow down to him.” (Rashi) Jacob bowed to his son, Joseph, who was at his hour as the viceroy of Egypt.
I was extremely uncomfortable when my father zt”l would visit a synagogue where I was rabbi and insist that the congregation wait for me and not for him. I cannot even imagine watching my father bow to me! How could Joseph even bear to watch his father, Israel, bow to him? How could the Children of Israel stand and nonchalantly watch their teacher Moshe bow before or to them?
The Brothers Karamazov begins with a confrontation among members of a scattered family. Three sons, all strangers to one another, and a dissolute, cynical father gather for the first time to discuss a quarrel about money, meeting, of all places, at a monastery: specifically, in the hermitage of Father Zosima, a man with a reputation, depending on your view, of either holiness or foolishness. The argument centers upon the eldest son, Dmitri, and his negligent father, Fyodor, and quickly takes on the appearance of a trial, with each man appealing to the elder Zosima for “justice”. But then, the narrator informs us, “the whole scene was stopped in a most unexpected manner”: “The elder suddenly rose from his place and stepped toward Dmitri Fyodrovich and, having come close to him, knelt before him. Kneeling in front of Dmitri, the elder bowed down at his feet with a full, distinct, conscious bow, and even touched the floor with his forehead. “Forgive me! Forgive me, all of you!’ he said, bowing on all sides to his guests.”
The elder Zosima bows to the ground before Dmitri who is suffering. He does not judge, for he knows from within himself this pettiness and arrogance. He sees himself darkly in Dmitri, and knows that this seeing is a gift. His bow and words simply return the gift purified.
Is it possible that Moshe’s bow was a message that he understood the nation’s response to the spies’ report? Was Moshe sending a message to Korach that he understood Korach’s issues: both the ones on Korach’s consciousness and those issues underlying his rebellion?
Did Moshe observe Korach and gain insight into himself? The Ba’al Shem Tov often taught that we observe in others what we do not want to see in ourselves. (Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer used this idea to explain Proverbs 4:25)
Perhaps Moshe’s fall to the ground was an acknowledgement of what he perceived as his own shortcomings; a message to all of Israel that he was aware of his limitations.
I wonder whether anyone watching had enough insight to reflect on the powerful image of Moshe falling on his face. I imagine chills running up and down my spine at the tangible expression of Moshe’s humility. I picture myself forever changed by the scene. The participants were unmoved. Their hearts were sealed by their anger and resentment.
Imagine anger so intense that it is impenetrable even by such an awesome expression of Moshe’s humility.
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