Why Did Moses Fall on His Face?
Last weekend, I tripped and fell flat on my face in the street. It was 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 commentary on the Torah, I noticed that it said twice of Moses and Aaron that they fell on their faces. And I thought lucky for them that they were in the desert. 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 Kippur it is repeated vigorously.
But what does that phrase 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, 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 leaving 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 on 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 curtsying, replaced the flat-out 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?
We know that Moses was a humble man. It is 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 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.
The author is a writer and rabbi currently living in New York.