Shabbat Parshat Korach
Korach and his supporters challenge the authority of Moshe and the choice of Aharon as Kohen Gadol:
And they assembled against Moshe and Aharon, and said to them, “It is too much for you! All the community in its entirety are holy, and Hashem is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves over Hashem’s congregation?” And Moshe heard, and he fell to his face (Bamidbar 16:3-4).
Later, when Korach and his faction are about to be punished:
And Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying,” Separate yourselves from this community, and I will destroy them in an instant.”
And they fell on their faces, and they said, “God, God of the spirits of all flesh! If one man sins, shall You be enraged at the entire community?” (20-22).
And again, when the people complain about the rebels’ punishment:
And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, “Remove yourselves from the midst of this community, and I will destroy them in an instant.” And they fell on their faces (17:9-10).
Three times in the confrontation with Korach and his cohorts, “falling to the face” is part of Moshe’s reaction, at times with Aharon, at times alone. What are the implications, here and elsewhere, of “falling to the face”?
According to Saadiah Gaon (882-942), Moshe does this intentionally, in order to receive the Divine inspiration he required to deal with Korach’s rebellion. This explanation is difficult however, because of the level of Moshe’s prophetic powers: He did not collapse when receiving prophecy, rather Hashem spoke with him “upon demand,” and without depriving Moshe of his physical faculties (Bamidbar 12:7-8).
Thus, Ibn Ezra says that, each time, the purpose of “falling to the face” is prayer. Bechor Shor (R. Yosef Bechor Shor, born c. 1140) says that Moshe was embarrassed, and so pressed his face against the earth. Rashi (16:4, based on Tanchuma 4) develops this further, saying that Moshe did so “because of the dispute, since this was their fourth offense. When they sinned with the calf, And Moshe implored (Shemot 32:11); with the grumblers And Moshe prayed (Bamidbar 11:2); with the spies, And Moshe said to Hashem, ‘If Egypt will hear …’ (14:13).
At Korach’s dispute, he faltered [literally, “his hands were weakened”]. This can be compared to a prince who offended his father, and his friend conciliated on his behalf three times. But when he offended a fourth time, his friend faltered, saying ‘How many times can I bother the king? Perhaps he will not tolerate any more from me!’”
According to Rashi, Moshe fell to his face because he ran out of options: He wanted to pray, but he did not feel right asking for Hashem’s forgiveness yet again. And, 38 years hence, when the Israelites complain of a lack of water, Moshe and Aharon will again “fall to their faces” (20:6).
When David slings his stone at Golyat:
And the stone bore into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground (Shmuel I 17:49).
This is an involuntary response; the intentional “falling on the face” might thus be an attempt to simulate death by relinquishing control.
“Falling to the face” is found in a number of contexts.
To convey grief: And Yehoshua tore his garments and fell on his face to the ground before the Ark of Hashem until the evening, both he and the elders of Israel; and they placed dirt upon their heads (Yehoshua 7:6); similarly, Yechezkel 11:13.
To express gratitude to Hashem, such as at the Covenant between the Pieces:
And Avram fell on his face (Bereshit 17:3, 17).
When beholding a Divine vision:
And I saw and I fell on my face, and I heard a voice speaking (Yechezkel 1:28); similarly, 2:23, 43:3, 44:4; Vayikra 9:24; Shofetim 13:20; and Divrei HaYamim I 21:16.
To show deference before man:
And Mefiboshet son of Yehonatan, son of Shaul came to David and he fell on his face and prostrated himself. And David said, “Mefiboshet!” And he said, “Here is your servant” (Shmuel II 9:6); similarly, Melachim I 18:7; Rut 2:10.
To demonstrate submission to Hashem
Rabbenu Bachya (ben Asher ben Hlava, 13thCentury) discusses “falling to the face” and says that it conveys three concepts:
Humility and shame
Consequently, after the daily prayer, it is customary to “fall to our faces” in supplication (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim, Chapter 131; see also Bava Metzi’a 59b). We cover our face, with our face towards the ground, uttering the petition (Tachanun). R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in Worship of the Heart (pp. 171-172), explains:
“Prayer is an act expressing total dependence, a prostration in absolute surrender. … the sacrifice of independence through absolute surrender. Man is disappointed, fate is cruel, life is tainted and ugly and amounts to nothing; wealth, power, and wisdom are naught.
There is no refuge for a finite being writhing between being and nothingness; only God can help and rescue. …
“ ‘Do not make your prayer rote, but a plea for mercy and an entreaty before God’ (Avot 2:13).
… Do not approach God confidently and sedately. … It is impossible for man to comprehend his needs and formulate them by means of lucid prayer. His mouth is inarticulate, his tongue falters. He requires Divine assistance not only for his sustenance but also in order to recognize his deficiencies and to arrange his words. … The person who has completed the Amidah ‘falls on his face’ in supplication [and recites the Tachanun prayer].
This institution of Tachanun or nefilat appayim stresses the annihilation of man’s being.
Man lowers himself to the dust and negates his existence.”
Like our Teacher Moshe, we throw ourselves upon the Mercy, Will and Wisdom of the Creator.