Shabbat Korach

Numbers 16-19 - Falling on Your Face

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Last weekend I tripped and fell flat on my face in the street. Just miraculous (or fortunate) that I fell on the tarmac instead of the paving stones. Otherwise, it would have been a lot worse than some cuts, a very bruised nose, mouth, and chin. Thankfully I am well on the way to a complete recovery.

So when I was preparing for this week’s comment on the Torah, I noticed that twice it said of Moses and Aaron that they fell on their faces. And I thought lucky them they were in the desert. Now had I been of a certain kind of mentality I might have seen the hand of God in all this or thought that some mystical might figure have given me a blessing unbeknownst. Certainly, I was fortunate. But then I started to think about the expression “to fall on one’s face.”

In modern Jewish liturgy, we have a weekday prayer called Nefillat Apayim. Which means falling on one’s face. It is a prayer for forgiveness for our daily failures to live up to the highest standards of moral and spiritual behavior. And of course, on Yom Kipur it is repeated more often than any other time. It is said sitting and leaning either on the right or left arm. So not flat on one’s face.

What does that mean in Torah terms? Apart from when the brothers of Joseph fell down before him, and where it applied to all the Children of Israel (Leviticus 9:24), the Torah applies it specifically to Moses and Aaron. When the Children of Israel react to the reports that Canaan is too difficult to invade and demand they return to Egypt, Moses and Aaron fall on their faces. Similarly, when as in this week’s Torah reading, when Korach leads a rebellion against them accusing them of arrogating power to themselves, they again fall on their faces (Numbers 16:22) and in the same context (17:10) when God talks of getting rid of the fractious people and leave only Moses and Aaron to start again, they fall on their faces.

In this situation maybe falling on their faces is an expression of humility, of recognizing their frailty and even, thinking their critics might have a point. But it could equally be a way of invoking God and calling for support or intervention. Later in the Torah when Miriam dies and there is no water once again, the people attack Moses and Aaron and again they fall on their faces (20:6).

Falling in one’s face or prostrating was the common practice in the Middle East and indeed all around the world, as a way of submitting either to a king or a god. An act of absolute submission. In Judaism, it was used in the Temple. Over time bowing, like curtseying replaced the flatout prostrate act of humility. But humility to whom? To the people? Saying we give up, we have failed, we are not worthy or capable of leading you? OR is it to God? Several times Moses complains to God that he cannot carry on. Or are they saying as they did at the Red Sea, this is not our doing but God’s? And perhaps they are praying for Divine intervention?

Now we know that Moses was a humble man. It said so when Miriam and Aaron criticized him in Numbers (12:3). But he was not passive. Just think of how he responded after the Golden Calf. He had two tools in his armory, personal humility and yet fierce faith and determination to see the mission through. The combination of personal qualities and Divine support. And falling on his face was a way of showing both. Whereas in my case it was just carelessness!

Shabbat Shalom



Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.