Although the summer seems to be the season of rest and tranquillity, in truth, every reader of the Torah begins this time with a boiling conflict. Parashat Korach, which arrives every year as the blistering heat rolls in, has its own kind of heat-the heat of an overwhelming challenge to the order at hand.
Korach and his band, jealous of Moses and Aaron, fire a shot across the bow of the greatest leader in Jewish history Rav-lachem, they tell Moses and Aaron: "You have gone too far!" (Numbers 16:3) What is their claim? They maintain that Moses, in asserting his leadership, has deprived the congregation of their proper roles. "For all the community is holy," Korach protests (Numbers 16:3), as he demands his band's piece of the leadership pie.
Summer is the season of competition and challenge. From ultra-competitive sports to wild parties to angry riots, people do crazy things when the world heats up. And Korach is no different: He picks a fight with someone who clearly has God on his side. In the end, Korach and his band lose it all in this match: "The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up." (Numbers 16:32)
But the telling moment in this parashah is found not in Korach's complaint nor in God's punishment, but in Moses' response. Threatened by Korach and his band, Moses fell on his face, as the Torah says: Vayipol al-panav. (Numbers 16:4) Moses, perhaps still prone, in effect replies to Korach and his band: We'll see in the morning just who is with God and who is holy. On initial reading, falling on the ground and waiting until tomorrow in the face of a serious challenge does not appear to be prudent crisis management. But our commentators tell us otherwise.
Saadiah Gaon (tenth century, Babylonia) suggests Moses has a motive: The commentator explains that Moses falls on his face in order to seek a vision from God. After all, every great leader needs a mentor for times like this. By freeing himself from the moment of crisis and seeking good advice, Moses is able to rise above whatever human anger he feels and respond in an appropriate, disciplined way to the momentous situation at hand.
Rashbam, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (eleventh century, France), agrees with the basic idea of Moses' asking God for help but suggests that Moses prays for guidance so that he might discover what to say to Korach. As we know, the Hebrew word that means to pray, lehitpallel, is reflexive. Thus, Rashbam indicates, Moses is seeking counsel with himself. In prayer, he is searching his deepest recesses to find the strength he needs-the answer he needs-for this disturbing moment.
Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah asks a pointed question about Moses' odd behavior: "What did he see to say 'in the morning'? [Numbers 16:5] Moses said: 'Perhaps out of eating and drinking they said this. Maybe between now and then, they will do teshuvah [repentance].'" Far from being a shrinking violet here, Moses is thoughtful and compassionate. He sees the good and the potential for repentance, even in as motley a crew as Korach and his friends are. And so, he waits to see what will be.
Our commentaries point out to us three possible reactions inherent in Moses' one set of actions. First, when life overwhelms us, some of us seek the answer from a "higher-up." We find spiritual guidance from someone we trust, we ask for a vision of what we should do, and the rest resolves itself. Others among us choose deep prayer and inner searching to help us seek a solution. The third alternative is to let the challenge stay with us for a bit, to let us absorb it, until we have the courage and knowledge to deal with it appropriately. Just by waiting, we may allow the problem to resolve itself.
These are mighty lessons of leadership because they indicate three powerful sources of strength to help us undergo and vanquish our own personal tests: trusted spiritual guidance, internal prayerful search, and thoughtful temporal perspective. In the hottest time of the year, in the hottest conflict in our Torah, comes good advice for the tough choices we each face daily.