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Moses’ “I Give Up” Moment

6.27.20. Korach. Moses’ “I Give Up” Moment

This morning, we read from the parashah entitled Korach.  Korach is a rabble-rouser who sees himself as equal to Moses and Aaron.  Korach stages a rebellion, he is outspoken and arrogant; he doesn’t handle himself in a respectful way, but he does raise some good points.  And in fact, there is a bit of uncertainty around Korach.

From the Torah text alone, it is hard to know exactly what Korach’s crime is – is it that he thinks he is as important as Moses and Aaron?  Is it that he believes the whole nation is already holy and doesn’t need to keep working toward holiness?  Is it that he challenges Moses in public?  We don’t really know.

Even Korach’s death is complicated.  Some commentators say he is swallowed up by the earth.  Others say he is consumed by the fire.  Still others say that Korach is so horrible that just as he is being scorched by the fire, the earth opens up to swallow him.  No matter how Korach dies, however, his memory is not wiped out. 

We have a Torah portion named for him, and we learn later in the book of B’midbar (26:11) that his sons do not die.  In fact, they are credited with writing several psalms, including the one that is traditionally recited every Monday morning. 

Korach’s ‘rebellion’ – what it is and what it means, is ambiguous.  There is no doubt that Korach could have handled himself more appropriately.  He could have sought out Moses in private; he certainly did not need to bring his 250 followers with him.  However, there seems to be some truth to Korach’s message – don’t we believe that everyone has the potential to be holy, for instance? 

Although the parashah is named Korach, perhaps, we can read this episode as being more about Moses and his leadership than it is about Korach the instigator.  We know that by this point in the journey, Moses is exhausted.  He has listened to the Children of Israel moan and groan for a long time.  B’midbar is filled with complaints. 

In Parashat B’ha-a lot’cha there is no meat; last week, we read in Shlach L’cha that 10 spies return from the land of Canaan with terrifying reports.   Moses’ frustration will culminate next week when we will read Parashat Chukkat, and he will hit the rock to bring forth water for the Israelites instead of speaking to it (20:11). 

Moses is worn out. 

Perhaps this is why Moses “falls on his face – va-yipol al panav” (16:4) when Korach confronts him.  Perhaps Moses is so frustrated and tired of fielding complaints that he throws a temper tantrum. Rashi points out that in this moment, Moses feels shame, I would suggest embarrassment for being called out in public, but I actually think that Moses is having an “I give up” moment.

I have to believe that if Moses hadn’t been so frayed, so tired, so weary, he would not have behaved in such a dramatic way, even with 250 guys breathing down his neck.  After all, by this point in the story, Moses has dealt with much more stressful situations than Korach’s insurgency:  getting Pharaoh to free the slaves, convincing those 600,000 newly freed slaves to cross a sea into who knows where, getting the people to move in an orderly fashion, fighting Amalek when they are attacked from behind. The golden calf.  Schlepping up and down the mountain countless times. So a big mouth and a couple of hundred people doesn’t really seem like the most stressful thing Moses has ever had to deal with.

But, we know what it’s like to live with perpetual stress.  We know what it is like to live with ongoing anxiety because we don’t know when we’re going to get to where we are going or what it will look like when we get there.  We know what it’s like to have people – lots of people – thousands of people get sick and die – let’s remember that there is a plague that kills 14,700 people right after the Korach incident. 

So, I get Moses. 

I get why he flings himself on the ground and at the risk of sounding flippant, why he uses God to his advantage. In Numbers 16:28-30, Moses addresses Korach and his followers and says, “By this you shall know that it was Adonai who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising:  if these men die as all people do, if their lot be the common fate of all humankind, it was not Adonai who sent me. 

But if Adonai brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, you shall know that these men have spurned Adonai.”  

And guess what happens next?

The next verses (16:31-33) say, “Scarcely had he <Moses> finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions.  They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.”

It’s pretty handy how the story works out. 

More seriously, it seems that God in this moment understands that Moses has already dealt with so much – too much, and he just doesn’t need an instigator right now.  God comes to the rescue.  

I wonder how many of us have indulged in “I give up” moments over these last few months.  Maybe we haven’t thrown ourselves down on the ground, but maybe we’ve had a good cry that seemed to come from out of nowhere.  Maybe we’ve picked a fight with a loved one because we just couldn’t think of another way to communicate our exhaustion, our anxiety, our weariness.  Maybe we’ve eaten our feelings, secure in knowing that we’ll be in yoga pants and sweats for quite some time to come.

We are weary:  We are tired of and from living virtually, tired of and from being scared, tired of and from wondering when we’ll stop sheltering-in-place, and after the huge spikes across the country and in California, who knows?!

But here’s the thing.  We will find a way to keep going – we have to.  We will keep wandering through this time as best as we can.  We cannot stay in “I give up” mode forever.  And Moses is a great role model for us in this regard. 

After God smites Korach and his followers, the Israelites rail against Moses and Aaron, fearful that they will perish too.  God, in fact, threatens to wipe out the nation, telling Moses and Aaron to leave the community, and this would have been an easy escape, but they don’t leave. 

They do, however, throw themselves on their faces again – the Hebrew is basically the same, just in the plural: “va-yiplu al penai-hem” – this time though, they don’t throw themselves down in an “I give up” way, but rather as a plea to God to save the people.  Ibn Ezra explains that they fall down to pray.  

God give Moses an out – he could have left.  But he doesn’t.  He stays, he pleads on behalf of the people, even though he knows he will spend countless days of his life fielding complaints, dealing with insurrections, wandering around in the wilderness.  He believes the people are worth saving, and in this moment, Moses finds his way forward.

He re-centers himself.  He grounds himself.  He comes back to what is important.

I imagine that we will encounter many more moments of weariness as we press on.  We will complain, we will say things we probably shouldn’t, we will have drama, and moments of “I give up,” or as I like to say “I can’t even.” 

And then, like Moses, we will take a deep breath, maybe we’ll pray, we will re-center ourselves, and we will move through this wilderness, because we know what is truly important. Shabbat Shalom