Women oppose all the great sins of the Wilderness. The Golden Calf? Husbands had to take wives’ earrings by force. The Spies? Bnot Tzlaphchad were steadfast in their faith that the Land would be given to us. Korach? Well, therein lies a tale.
The opening verse of our Parshah features four ringleaders: Korach ben Yitzchak ben Kehat ben Levi, Datan and Aviram bnei Eliav; and On ben Pelet, the latter three all bnei Reuven. Korach, Datan, and Aviram all come to supernaturally bad ends. On ben Pelet simply disappears. Where did he go?
The Talmud on Sanhedrin 109b fills this gap in the narrative.
Said Rav: On ben Pelet was saved by his wife.
She said to him: What difference does it make to you? If this one is the master, you are the student, and if that one is the master, you are the student!
He said to her: What should I do? I was part of the conspiracy, and I swore to them!
She said: I know that the entire community is holy, as Scripture says “for the entire community is holy”.
She said: Sit, and I will save you.
She gave him wine and got him drunk and put him to bed.
She sat at the doorway and let her hair down. (In a parallel version her daughter joins her.) Everyone who came saw her and turned around.
Eventually the rest were swallowed up by the earth.
My favorite element of this story is Mrs. On’s inversion of Korach’s slogan as the basis of her plan to undermine him. “For the entire community is holy” means to her that “No man in the community would consider staying in the same space as a woman that he considers undressed.” And she is correct at least a far as Korach’s leadership cadre Is concerned. They all flee at the sight of her, and so On is never summoned to join them.
How should we feel about On’s survival? He does not have the courage to stand up to his friends. His wife’s successful derecruitment argument to him is grounded purely in self-interest. He is unwilling to break his word, feels no compunction about evading his commitments. For all we know, hewould have fetched Korach if their roles were reversed, even if Mrs. Korach were standing in the doorway in dishabille. In short, he is no hero. Is there a moral to be drawn from his survival?
The same Talmudic passage make Mrs. Korach’s ambition the true driver of the rebellion.
Korach’s wife said to him: See what Mosheh is doing! He himself is king, he made his brother High Priest, he made his nephews Vice Kohanim! If you bring terumah – he says it goes to the kohen; if they bring maaser, that you get – he says give one tenth to a kohen.
Moreover, he shaves your hair and tosses you like dung! His jealous eye was always on your hair.
He said to her: But he also shaved himself!?
She said to him: Since it is all done to magnify him, he said “Let my soul die among the Phillistines”.
Moreover – he said to you to make (one string of tkhelet). If you think that tkhelet is considered valuable/a mitzvah – then take a tkhelet cloaks and cover your whole yeshiva!
Once again hair is at the center of the story. Lady MacKorach wants her husband’s hair to be on display. She is deeply cynical about populist gestures. In her view, a leader who shares his followers’ sacrifices for the cause is not being egalitarian, because they are sacrificing for his glory, while he is acting to reinforce his own preeminence. Korach tries to defend Moshe, but she dismisses him with a clever Biblical citation.
So Korach, the idealistic populist leader turns out to be a front for a clever woman who is cynical about populists. (Perhaps she keeps in the background because she genuinely cares about modesty.) His fault lies not in his stars, but in his spouse. Yet the power of his rhetoric – “All the community is holy, and Hashem is within them!” – and the drama of his death make him a permanent symbol paradoxically of both excessive levelling and of divisiveness.
It is often claimed that Chazal’s narrative expansions consistently seek to whitewash the righteous and blacken the wicked. Here we have a decisive counterexample – one of many – in which midrash instead add layers of moral complexity.
If a clear moral is nonetheless necessary, here is my formulation. We are not judged as hypothetical Robinson Crusoes, as the people we would be if we lived on a desert island. Rather, we are judged by who we are as socially embedded beings, as we exist in relationship with others. May we all be blessed with relationships that encourage and enable us to be our best selves.