Updated: Jul 3, 2022
(This post is dedicated to the honor of Suzanne Gallant z"l, a soul master, a lyrical poet, a curious student, and a supportive friend)
Have you ever had a negative reaction to a question you were asked? What is the nature of that unsettling feeling in your gut?
Most of the time questions are genuinely brimming with curiosity. As we have been learning, questions are essentially for clarification or for building relationships. Our sensitivities are heightened when any question is asked because it can imply a sense of doubt or uncertainty in our own motives. Our best selves resolve the doubt with dignity. This is the measure of the holiness we aspire to achieve.
There are times, though, when we interpret any question as a challenge to the truth or authority we hold. Our sensitivities are heightened when we are asked questions that reveal a vulnerability or a blind spot in our vision of the world as it is. We may even feel threatened by the inquiry, as if the challenge to our authority is unwarranted or misguided.
In a flash, our impulse is to undermine the purpose of the question, even to go on the offensive and invalidate the inquiry altogether. The Torah takes on this crucial distinction in the story of Korach which we are reading this week. The episode of Korach and his band challenging the authority of Moshe and Aharon simmers with potential defensiveness. It also prompts thoughtful consideration of the consequences when misreading the intent of a question. Korach, a cousin of Moshe and Aharon and a member of the Levite clan, asks, "Why do you lift yourselves above the assembly of YHVH?" The question could have been a genuine expression of curiosity about the behavior of Moshe and Aharon. However, the tone of this question appears contentious and heightens our sensitivities too. Korach preempts his inquiry with the invective, “You have gone too far!” His question already has an answer in mind.
We often look to the end of the story as proof that Korach crossed a line. Korach and the others who rally behind him are swallowed up by the earth at God's command. While Korach's question can be sincerely expressed, there is a sense that the very presence with God he seeks is overshadowed by his desire to wield power and influence of others, especially Moshe and Aharon. Korach's thought is authentic, but his question and method of inquiry reveal his lack of concern for God.
How Moshe responds illuminates the true purpose of the question. He lowers himself and responds with dignity in the face of arrogance. By falling upon his face, a symbolic act of humility, Moshe is creating space between Korach’s attack and his own response. He could have taken the question as a challenge to his authority and mounted an impenetrable defense. Instead, Moshe symbolically lowers himself to disarm the thrust of the question. Moshe’s response has little to do with his own needs directly, and has everything to do with a connection to God.
If someone expresses a curiosity about the behavior or actions we take, we might contend with the emotional response defensively before we contemplate the efficacy of our feelings. Acting on impulse in any event prompts a harsh response, sometimes even resulting in violence.
There is a model worthy of emulation here. When a question appears to challenge one’s authority, a sacred pause before responding is vital. After a moment to properly align your reaction with the value of concern behind the question, we can respond with the ultimate goals of serving the divine and maximizing human dignity.
"Fall on your face" the Torah is teaching. Not for God's sake, but for our own.