Torah | To avoid repeating the same mistakes, start with humility


Numbers 16:1-18:32
I Samuel 11:14-12:22


This week, we meet Judaism’s arch-demagogue, the fiery Korach, who is fittingly punished when the ground opens and fire descends from the heavens. Korach’s rebellion represents the apex of the many challenges to Moses’ authority in the Book of Numbers. Having already endured a series of rebellions and the utter failure of the scouts to appraise the land, Moses is now confronted by his kinsmen, who openly deny his leadership. Yet as in the case of the previous challenges, Moses’ actions continue to teach us lessons of leadership.

It is important to note that Korach’s rebellion is directed at Aaron as well as Moses. This detail allows us to consider Moses’ response in greater depth. Moses challenges the rebels to offer incense to God in their fire pans. This ritual recalls the tragic episode of Nadav and Abihu in Leviticus. Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron and nephews of Moses, eagerly offer burnt incense to God. Because their ritual does not follow God’s detailed prescriptions, they are consumed in fire. As a result, Aaron and Moses painfully learn to follow God’s commandments with exact precision. Indelibly scarred, Moses and especially Aaron soldier on in grief.

Moses and Aaron surely recall this tragedy in their response to Korach’s rebellion. Surely, Korach, Datan and Abiram remember what happened to Nadav and Abihu. As Levites, they would observe the rituals of the tabernacle, and as kinsmen, they would be cognizant of their family’s loss. But such is the defining line between arrogance and humility. While Moses accepts the situation and makes sure to avoid future pitfalls, Korach and his men are confident that the same thing won’t happen to them. They see themselves as better and more deserving than Nadav and Abihu.

In the Mishnah Torah, the Rambam teaches that in order to make teshuvah (repentance), one must face the same situation in which one has erred previously and then make a different choice. In this way, repentance is intrinsically linked to humility. We atone for our sins only when we acknowledge that we and not outside forces are to blame. Humility allows us to recognize that we are the ones who must change.

And so Moses and Aaron march Korach and his men into their most painful past, this time utilizing its lessons to quash the upstart rebellion. Rather than justify his position, Moses “falls upon his face,” signaling to the community and God his humility in the face of such challenge. He then challenges Korach and his men to offer their incense the next day, in front of the community.

Korach must know what Moses is up to here. But again, he is blinded by arrogance into believing that he will prevail. In the end, Korach and his men achieve the equivalence of watching someone step in front of a high-speed train and then choosing to do so themselves.

Two weeks ago, in Parashat Beha’alotcha’s account of Miriam’s slander against Moses, we read that “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other person on earth” (Number 12:3). How does Moses merit such a lofty title? Perhaps the answer is found in Moses’ ability to accept blame when due and to avoid repeating his mistakes. In this way, may we strive to emulate Moses by recognizing our own faults rather than following into Korach’s tempting tendency to blame others.

I would like to use this opportunity to offer my own humble thanks to all of you readers and the amazing staff of J. weekly as this will be my final column. After touring Israel with members of our congregation, I will fly to New York to become senior rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua.

 And while I do not possess Moses’ ability to avoid repeating my mistakes, I offer my sincere thanks to Congregation Emanu-El and the San Francisco Jewish community for your patience as I have grown into the position. It has been an honor to be featured among my cherished colleagues. Thank you.

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe has been a J. Torah columnist since 2012 and has served Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco since 2006.