It is said that one picture is worth a thousand words.
Imagine for a second the following picture — You are at the theatre and on the stage, you see a group of people all dressed the same, in light-blue garments. In front of them stands a single man dressed in white, a single thread of light blue in his clothes.
How does this affect you?
Beyond the breathtaking aesthetic that catches the eye there is a clear message of “us” against “you” and a tension is created to see where things will unfold from there.
What do you think is the effect of this on the man, standing alone in front of the group?
(He might be thinking: They are many and I am on my own, they have power together, I feel threatened, I feel alone, I feel speechless, yet, I too have a light blue thread so we have something in common, there is hope, I must find a way to talk to them, etc.)
This picture is an interpretation of the Midrash that describes the dispute between Korach and Moshe, and according to the Midrash, the dispute between them revolved around the laws of Tzitzit.
And where did the writers of the Midrash come to this idea?
Last week’s Torah portion (שלח לך) ended with the mention of the halacha of Tzitzit that should have a thread if light-blue color on the fringe of the garment for generations — as an important reminder “for you shall remember and do all my commandments and be holy to your God”. (Num.15:37-41)
And the Parsha of Korach that comes right after it, begins with the drama in which the followers of Korach and his committee (of the tribe of Levi) confront Moshe and Aharon claiming:
” They conspired against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and יהוה is in their midst.
Why then do you raise yourselves above יהוה’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3)
It seems to me that Korach uses dramatic, demagogic, and psychological elements here to challenge Moshe’s authority, and enlists the help of the theatrical means to convey without words a clear message:
We are many and cohesive and you are one, we are all hollies, and you have no power over us. Get off the stage.
If the “picture” had stopped here and I would not have read the rest of the story, the initial impression and the sweetness of the words might have deceived me: the whole congregation is holly and within them is יהוה. Wow. What an advanced democratic idea!
And what happens next? What is Moshe’s reaction?
“When Moses heard this, he fell on his face” (Num.16:4)
What happens to Moses? What activates him? Why does he lose his authority as a leader and humiliate himself even more?
One of the great fears common to most human beings is that we may be in a state of conflict with someone and will not have words to respond. That our tongue will “dry up”.
For Moses, this fear is an age-old fear that activates it.
Moses was always a man of deeds and not a man of speech. When he first came out of Pharaoh’s palace and saw the Egyptian man beating a Hebrew man, he killed him and buried in the sand. When he went out the next day and saw a Hebrew slave beating another Hebrew slave, he tried to separate them. The following thing happens:
” .. he (Moses) said to the offender, “Why do you strike your fellow man?”
The offender retorted, who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses was frightened…” (Ex 2:13-14)
After this incident Moshe escapes from the palace.
Does Moses flee only from the fear that they will find out that he murdered and covered the body of the Egyptian? Or is he running away because the question confronted him with conflict regarding his identity and sense of belonging? (Who am I?)
Could it be that the “demons” of the same experience are “persecuting” him now that he hears Korach ask, ” Why then do you raise yourselves above יהוה and the congregation?”
Moreover, when later God is revealed to him from the burning bush and presents him with the mission, he tries to evade it on this pretext:
But Moses spoke up and said, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me (Exodus 4:1)
And adds later: “Please, O my lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Ex 4: 10)
Moshe is aware of his shortcomings, his difficulty in speaking convincingly and the fear that they will not hear him remains to manage him.
He does understand the divine speech like no one understood but to mediate it clearly, he needs help from Aaron.
And here his fears come true – Korach comes with all his followers, accusing him of condescension (as if he does not believe that it is God who chose Moses to lead but that he chose to condescend to them) and it shrinks him.
Moshe manages to recover and mobilize his strength not to be sucked into his “shadow” that haunts him and he turns to Korach:
“Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you direct access, to perform the duties of יהוה’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them?” (Num. 16:9)
But his words fall on deaf ears. Korach does not even bother to answer Moshe. Moshe’s biggest fear comes true: They will not believe me and will not hear my voice…
(Thanks to Dr. Aviva Zornberg for this insight)
This controversy that Korach and Moshe are in is a barren and frustrating controversy, because there is one side that is completely blind to its shortcomings (Korach projects his condescension at Moshe) who does not really want to reach a solution to the problem but to remain in his right position, in his own ego-trip, while the other side (Moshe) is aware of his shortcomings and is willing to talk, but he has no partner to converse with. There is no desire for conversation here, only an expression of a forceful position of “I am right.” Not even an attempt to talk, to persuade, to influence. A forceful approach of blind faith in my righteousness and nothing more. I’m not interested in hearing from you because I’m right! I did not come to talk to you but to voice my position. Your position does not interest me at all — because I am right!
Whoever presents such an approach of forcefulness, of fortification in the position of the just who is unwilling to listen to the other side, testifies to himself that he is anxious to hear what the other side has to say. He fortifies himself in his position out of a need to defend himself, lest he be persuaded, God forbid, to move from his position.
It can indeed arouse a lot of anxiety to listen to the other side in the confrontation and realize that there is justice in his words as well, or that I can feel empathy for him. It might “weaken” me.
Such an approach can bring nothing but destruction. Nothing constructive can be built from it and the end of one who is caught in his own ego trip is that he is “swallowed up” into a place where words no longer have a place to be heard.
And what can we learn from this about ourselves?
If we listen well we can recognize that we have both “Kol Korach” (Korach’s Voice: “Everything you can do – I can do better “,” I am right and you are not right “,” Why does he gets it and I am not “etc.) and” Kol Moshe” (Moshe’s voice: ” I am afraid that I will swallow my tongue “, “I must keep trying to reconcile the other side, he will eventually listen to me “) and the more we manage to be aware of those voices and aware of their existence within us – we will grow forward.
Self-Reflecting Writing Exercises:
- Try to remember an incident where you were in a confrontation with someone (or you were accused of something you didn’t do) – and the words “dried” on your tongue. Now from a distanced place and time – what would you tell him / her?
- An event in my life where I fortified myself in the position of the righteous and had a tough time listening to the other side — what might I have been afraid of? How can I flex my position today?
- Try to remember a case where you felt “why he/ she “yes” and I am not”? And write about it for about 5 minutes without placing the pen down. Then read what you wrote. Try to look at it as a mirror: what might it reflect to you about yourself, about a wish that was in you that did not come true, about a talent that you have that you did not fulfil?