They assembled against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all of the community are holy…Why do you raise yourselves above the congregation?” When Moses heard this, he fell on his face. Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, “Come morning, the Lord will make known who is His and who is holy, and will grant him access to Himself; He will grant access to the one He has chosen.” (B’midbar 16:3-5).
The chieftains stood behind their leader:
Korach’s eyes were blazing hotly
and his voice was raised in rage,
“We are all God’s holy people,
why set yourselves above us all?”
Moses blinked, the words sank in:
lying prone on rocky ground
sequestered from those hostile eyes,
he wondered, “Does a trace of pride
corrupt me? Do these words
reflect the truth?”
Softly he replied to Korach
and his entourage of men,
“In the morning God will show us
who is His and who is holy –
God will intimate His choice.”
The Ba’al HaTanya R’ Schneur Zalman of Liadi* says that seemingly, Moses could have answered immediately so why did he fall on his face first? But, he says, Moses was concerned that perhaps the question came from On High and Korach was only the messenger. Therefore he fell on his face first for self-reflection because he was asking himself whether Korach had a valid point, to see if in truth he had any arrogance. After a meticulous examination, he could find no hint of pride, and he understood that Korach was not a messenger from God, but was a divisive character. Only then he replied.
In an article on Parashat Korach, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/korah_kolel5761.shtml, Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger expands on this. He believes that the Ba’al HaTanya is challenging us to follow Moses’ example by first reflecting on our own actions in any situation of conflict or anger. He says, that in effect, this is teaching us that even Moses had to entertain the possibility that Korah had a valid point, or at least that his accusations contained some kernel of truth. He says, “In the rabbinic tradition, Moses is the archetypal good man, and Korah the very symbol of selfishness and evil – so how much more are the rest of us, all the “in-between” people, challenged to consider the possibility that [an]other’s words may contain painful truths.” He sees this teaching as very powerful as it refuses to provide any easy answers to human relationships. “It would be too easy to say that any situation of conflict reflects equally badly on both parties, and thus slide into a kind of psychological relativism. Yes, sometimes people do bad things out of their own pain, but this way of seeing things gets people “off the hook” for their actions.
On the other hand, it would also be too easy to say that some people do evil or hurtful things simply because they are evil people – but this does not account for Judaism’s insistence that all people, even Korah, are made in the Divine Image. Even Korah could have been the agent of holy truth. As it turned out, he wasn’t, but there was no easy way, other than real soul-searching, to either “validate” Korah’s feelings or write him off as an arrogant usurper. According to the Ba’al HaTanya, some people may be bad, but we must always be open to hearing the truth from any source…we must “seek first to understand,” before we react in a situation of conflict. Who knows – we might be in the presence of a “divider,” or we might be in the presence of a “messenger from On High.””
Rashi brings a Midrash which teaches that Moses fell on his face because this was already the fourth time the people had sinned and he had prayed on their behalf: worshiping the Golden Calf; murmuring and complaining; and the incident of the spies. Now he felt powerless. This is likened to a parable in which a prince sins against his father and his father’s friend gains forgiveness for him, once, twice, three times. When the prince offends his father a fourth time, the friend feels himself powerless saying, “How long can I trouble the king? Perhaps he will not again accept advocacy from me!”
In his book Ma’ayana shel Torah, Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman** comments, “With all the disputes and complaints until now, Moses never fell on his face, but here he did. For when they disdained and belittled the value of holiness, and began to say each of them is holy, then Moses fell on his face. For who like Moses knew how far human deeds are from holiness and how hard it is to reach the level of a holy person.”
In his book, Tiferet Yehonatan, Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeschutz (Kraków 1690 – Altona 1764) comments on the belief expressed in the Talmud, (Mo’ed Katan 17) that the glance of a righteous person could result in death or poverty. Moses fell on his face so that his possibly accusing gaze would not bring down punishment on his opponents and they would have a chance to repent.
(Rashi also cites a corroborating Midrash indicating that initially, Moses did not seek punishment for the rebels, as he said that in the morning God would show His choice. This would defer the matter overnight in case the people would regret their actions and want to repent.)
*Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745 – 1812) was the founder and first Rebbe of Chabad, a branch of Chasidic Judaism, then based in Liadi, Imperial Russia. He is also known as the Baal HaTanya, “Master of the Tanya”, and by a variety of other names.
He was born in 1745 in the small town of Liozna (present-day Belarus), the son of Baruch and the great-grandson of the mystic and philosopher Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague. R’ Shneur Zalman was a prominent (and the youngest) disciple of Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch, the “Great Maggid”, who was in turn the successor of the founder of Chasidism, Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov.
R’ Schneur Zalman displayed extraordinary talent while still a child. By the time he was eight, he had written a wide-ranging commentary on the Chumash based on the works of Rashi, the Ramban and Ibn Ezra. Until the age of twelve, he studied under Rabbi Issachar Ber, in Lyubavichi (Lubavitch); he distinguished himself as a Talmudist, such that his teacher sent him back home, informing his father that the boy could continue his studies without the aid of a teacher.
In his Bar Mitzvah sermon he addressed the complicated laws of Kiddush Hachodesh, and the people of the town granted him the title “Rav”.
At age fifteen he married Sterna Segal, the daughter of Yehuda Leib Segal, a wealthy resident of Vitebsk, and he was then able to devote himself entirely to study. During these years, he is said to have been taught mathematics, geometry and astronomy by two learned brothers, refugees from Bohemia, who had settled in Liozna. One of them was also a scholar of the Kabbalah. Thus, besides mastering rabbinic literature, he also acquired a fair knowledge of the sciences, philosophy, and Kabbalah. He became an adept in R’ Isaac Luria’s system of Kabbalah, and in 1764 he became a disciple of Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch. In 1767, at the age of 22, he was appointed Maggid of Liozna, a position he held until 1801.
As a Talmudist, Rabbi Shneur Zalman endeavored to place Kabbalah and Hasidism on a rational basis. In his seminal work, the Tanya, he defines his approach as “mind ruling over the heart/emotions”. He chose the name “Chabad” for this philosophy — the Hebrew acronym for the intellectual attributes Chochma (“wisdom”), Binah (“understanding”), and Da’at (“knowledge”).
Both from his works and his sermons it is clear that he advocated an intelligent and not a blind faith and an intellectual accessibility of the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah. This intellectual basis differentiates Chabad from other forms of Chasidism.
During the French invasion of Russia, while many Polish Chasidic leaders supported Napoleon or remained quiet about their support, Rabbi Shneur Zalman openly and vigorously supported the Tsar. While fleeing from the advancing French army he wrote a letter explaining his opposition to Napoleon to a friend, Rabbi Moshe Meizeles: “Should Napoleon be victorious, wealth among the Jews will be abundant. . .but the hearts of Israel will be separated and distant from their father in heaven. But if our master Alexander will triumph, though poverty will be abundant. . . the heart of Israel will be bound and joined with their father in heaven. . . And for God’s sake: Burn this letter!”
Some argue that Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s opposition stemmed from Napoleon’s attempts to arouse a messianic view of himself in Jews, opening the gates of the ghettos and emancipating their residents as he conquered. He established an ersatz Sanhedrin, recruiting Jews to his ranks, and spreading rumors about his conquest of the Holy Land to make Jews subversive for his own ends.Thus, his opposition was based on a practical fear of Jews turning to the false messianism of Napoleon as he saw it.
In 1797, following the death of the Gaon, leaders of the Vilna community falsely accused the Chasidim of subversive activities – on charges of supporting the Ottoman Empire, since Rabbi Shneur Zalman advocated sending charity to support Jews living in the Ottoman territory of Palestine. In 1798 he was arrested on suspicion of treason and brought to St. Petersburg where he was held in the Petropavlovski fortress for 53 days, at which time he was subjected to an examination by a secret commission. Ultimately he was released by order of Paul I of Russia. The Hebrew day of his acquittal and release, 19 Kislev, is celebrated annually by Chabad Chasidim.
In 1800 Rabbi Shneur Zalman was again arrested and transported to St. Petersburg, this time along with his son Moshe who served as interpreter, as his father spoke no Russian or French. He was released after several weeks but banned from leaving St. Petersburg. The elevation of Tsar Alexander I (Alexander I of Russia) a few weeks later led to his release; he was then “given full liberty to proclaim his religious teachings” by the Russian government.
After his release he moved his base to Liadi, Vitebsk, rather than returning to Liozna. He took up his residence in the town of Liadi at the invitation of Prince Stanisław Lubomirski, the governor of the town. There his movement grew immensely, and he is still associated with the town to this day. In 1812, fleeing the French Invasion, he left Mogilev, intending to go to Poltava, but died on the way in the small village of Pena, Kursk Oblast. He is buried in Hadiach.
The eldest of his three sons, R’ DovBer Schneuri, eventually succeeded him as Rebbe of the Chabad movement.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman was a prolific writer: he produced works of both mysticism and Jewish law. Chabad tradition recasts his Yiddish name “Shneur” as the two Hebrew words “Shnei Ohr” (Two Lights), referring to R’ Schneur Zalman’s mastery of both the outer dimensions of Talmudic Jewish study, and the inner dimensions of Jewish mysticism. His works form the cornerstone of Chabad-Lubavitch teachings. His ability to explain even the most complex issues of Torah made his writings popular with Torah scholars everywhere.
He is probably best known for his systematic exposition of Chasidic Jewish philosophy, entitled Likkutei Amarim, more widely known as the Tanya, first published in 1797. The Tanya deals with Jewish spirituality and psychology from a Kabbalistic point of view, and expounds on many mystical concepts.
He also authored Shulchan Aruch HaRav, his version of the classic Shulkhan Arukh, an authoritative code of Jewish law and custom commissioned by Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch and composed at the age of twenty.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman also edited the first Chabad siddur, based on the Ari Siddur of the famous kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, but he altered it for general use, and corrected its textual errors. Today’s Siddur Tehillat HaShem is a later edition of this Siddur.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s other works include:
Torah Or and Likutei Torah, Chassidic explanations of the weekly Torah portions, Shir HaShirim and the Book of Esther, drawn from his Chasidic Discourses and published by his grandson, the Tzemach Tzedek, who added his own glosses; Sefer HaMa’amarim: a book of Chasidic Discourses; Al Parshiyot HaTorah VehaMoadim; Hilchot Talmud Torah, on the study of Torah; Sefer She’elot Uteshuvot: Responsa; Igrot Kodesh.
**Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman (1897 – 1943) was a prominent Polish Orthodox Jewish rabbi, communal activist, educator, journalist, and Torah scholar. He was the founding editor of the first Agudah Israel Hebrew journal, Digleinu (Our Banner), and author of Ma’ayanah shel Torah (Wellsprings of Torah), an anthology of commentaries on the weekly Torah portion, which is still popular today. He was incarcerated in the Warsaw Ghetto and deported to the Trawniki concentration camp, where he was selected for deportation to the death camps and murdered around November 1943.
He was born in Sochaczew (Sochatchov), Poland in 1897. His father, Aharon Yehoshua Friedman, was a poor shamash (synagogue caretaker); his mother supplemented the family income by selling wares in various fairs and markets. Alexander Zusia, their only son, proved himself to be an illui (exceptional student) at a very young age. When he was 3, he knew the entire Book of Bereishit by heart. When he was 9, his melamed informed his father that he had nothing left to teach him. His father then arranged for him to learn with a Talmudic scholar who had been brought from another town by three wealthy families to teach their gifted sons. The tuition was three rubles each per week, a huge sum in those days. When these families heard that Alexander Zusia would join their group, they offered to pay his father the three rubles for the privilege of having Alexander Zusia learn with and motivate their sons. But his father insisted on paying the tuition himself, which amounted to his entire week’s wages.
After his bar mitzvah, Alexander Zusia entered the Sochatchover yeshiva. In the summer of 1914 he became engaged to a girl from a nearby town. With the outbreak of World War 1, he, his bride and his parents fled to Warsaw, where he continued his studies.
Postwar Poland was full of new reforms and political movements that caused many Jewish youth to rebel against traditional Torah observance. R’ Friedman founded the Orthodox Federation to strengthen youth who were still loyal to the Torah camp.
In 1925 he was appointed secretary-general of Agudath Israel of Poland, a position he held until his death. He was heavily involved in many educational enterprises for both boys and for girls, both as an administrator and as a teacher.
In addition to his other gifts, he was a masterful orator and writer. His speeches combined deep knowledge of the Torah with original insights, and he was the second most popular speaker for the Agudath Israel of Poland, second only to Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the Rav of Lublin. He also wrote many articles for the religious press expounding the Torah point of view. In 1919 he founded and edited Digleinu (Our Banner), an Agudath Israel publication for young people. This paper was published between 1919 and 1924, and again between 1930 and 1931. From 1936 to 1938 he was a co-editor of Darkeinu (Our Path), the official journal of Agudath Israel of Poland. He also wrote poetry.
Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman visited Palestine in 1934 as part of a delegation led by World Agudath Israel activist Rabbi Yitzhak-Meir Levin. His sister, who had married Rabbi Avraham Mokatowski (known by his pen name, Eliyahu Kitov), immigrated to Palestine before World War II, as did his parents, but he opted to remain in Poland because of his communal responsibilities.
In November 1939 he was arrested together with 21 other Polish Jewish leaders and jailed for one week to prevent them from resisting the construction of the Warsaw Ghetto. After his release he became the sole representative of Agudath Israel in the Warsaw Judenrat (Jewish Community Council), which advised the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee regarding the latter’s relief efforts. At that time, religious Jews faced much discrimination from secular Jewish relief organizations. He successfully pushed for the opening of the first kosher soup kitchen in Warsaw, which was followed by the opening of several other free kitchens operated by Agudath Israel workers. The Joint and the Judenrat entrusted him with hundreds of thousands of dollars in stipends to distribute to the hundreds of refugee families that arrived penniless in Warsaw, a task he fulfilled with humility and sensitivity.
R’ Friedman was one of the Torah leaders in the Warsaw Ghetto. He organized an underground network of religious schools, for boys and for girls; a school for elementary Jewish instruction; and three institutions for advanced Jewish studies. These schools, operating under the guise of kindergartens, medical centers and soup kitchens, were a place of refuge for thousands of children and teens, and hundreds of teachers. In 1941, when the Germans gave official permission to the Warsaw Judenrat to reopen Jewish schools, these schools came out of hiding and began receiving financial support from the official Jewish community. Though Judenrat president Adam Czerniaków often asked R’ Friedman to become a member of the Judenrat, he only agreed to organize the Judenrat’s religious committee, which he staffed with representatives of all the religious political parties.
In July 1942 the Germans began mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camps. Among those deported were his wife and 13-year-old daughter, their only child, who had been born to them after 18 years of marriage. R’ Friedman alerted world Jewry to the start of deportations in a coded message. His telegram read: “Mr. Amos kept his promise from the fifth-third.” He was referring to the Book of Amos, chapter 5, verse 3, which reads: “The city that goes out a thousand strong will have a hundred left, and the one that goes out a hundred strong will have ten left to the House of Israel”.
At a general political meeting in the Warsaw Ghetto on 25 July 1942, attended by members of the Joint, the Bund, General Zionists, Left-wing Zionists, communists, Jewish socialists, and members of Agudath Israel, R’ Friedman was one of the only Jewish leaders who advised against armed resistance. He said, “God will not permit His people to be destroyed. We must wait and a miracle will certainly occur”. Historians believe that this position grew out of Agudath Israel’s belief that armed opposition would cause the Germans to liquidate the Ghetto.
With the beginning of mass deportations, the Joint ceased its activities in the Ghetto and and he lost his financial support for his activities. With much effort, he procured a job as a shoemaker in the large Shultz factory, where he worked a 12-hour shift. Other Torah leaders who worked in the same factory were Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piasetzener Rebbe; Rabbi Moshe Betzalel Alter, brother of the Gerer Rebbe; Rabbi Avraham Alter, Rav of Pabianice; and Rabbi David Alberstadt, Rav of Sosnowiec. When the Joint resumed its operations clandestinely between October 1942 and January 1943, Rabbi Alexander Zusia rejoined the organization to assist religious Jews.
In March 1943 he received a Paraguayan passport from Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Eiss, the Agudah rescue activist in Zurich, Switzerland, but he did not show it to the German authorities. Following the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April, he was among those deported to the Trawniki concentration camp in the Lublin region. and his date of death is assumed to be November 1943, the same month the Trawinki camp was liquidated.
His popular work, Der Torah Kval (1937), translated into Hebrew as Ma’ayanah shel Torah and into English as Wellsprings of Torah, combines insights from classic and Chasidic Torah commentators with Friedman’s own chiddushim (novel Torah ideas) on the weekly Torah portion and Haftarah. Friedman wrote this work in Yiddish rather than Hebrew, and in a lighter, easy-to-understand style of short teachings, to appeal to the many Jews who were no longer versed in the difficult language and concepts of Jewish sefarim. This work continues to be popular today and is frequently cited by Torah writers.
Other published works include Kesef Mezukak (Refined Silver) (1923), a book of chiddushim on the principles of Talmudic study, and Kriah LeIsha Yehudit (Readings for the Jewish Woman) (1921). He also published several textbooks for religious schools, including Iddish Lashon (Yiddish Language), a Yiddish primer. He wrote many other pamphlets and collections of chiddushim – including a collection on the Talmudic tractates of Gittin, Kiddushin, and Yoma that he titled Avnei Ezel (Guiding Stones) – which were lost in the war.