There’s an old Jewish joke that says that if you want the Jewish People to remember your name for all time, you either have to become someone great or start up with someone great. In this week’s parsha we find a spectacular example of some people who chose the latter option. Korach, joined by Dasan, Aviram, and On ben Peles, led a rebellion against Moshe Rabbeinu in an attempt to overturn many of the leadership appointments. In a miraculous and dramatic defense of His prophet, Hashem caused the ground to open up and swallow the entire cabal, thus conclusively ending the insurrection.
Although Korach and his fellow conspirators have indeed gone down for all time as notorious antagonists, there are two more characters in the narrative whose involvement is less known but no less integral. They are not mentioned in the Written Torah, but the Talmud in Sanhedrin (109b) records the part that the wives of Korach and On ben Peles played in this sorry tale.
Why is the name of On ben Peles only mentioned in the beginning of the narrative, but not later on? This is because On left the rebellion shortly after it began. Why did he leave? Because“his wife said to him, ‘What will you gain from joining this coup? If Korach wins you will be subordinate [to him] and if Moshe wins you will be subordinate [to him]. You gain nothing from joining.’ He replied, ‘But what can I do? I swore.’ [It is too late to back out now.] She replied, ‘I will save you. I know that the entire congregation is holy’ [and would never look at a woman whose hair is not properly covered]. So she sat at the door of her tent with her hair undone. When they approached his tent to get him, they turned away so as not to gaze upon her. This is what the verse in Mishlei (14:1) refers to – ‘Each wise woman builds her house’ – for this is the wife of On ben Peles.”
The Talmud then proceeds to describe the part Korach’s wife played. “She said to him, ‘Look what Moshe has done. He appointed himself as the king, his brother [Aharon] as the High Priest, and his nephews as the assistant priests. All tithes must be brought to his brother’s family as terumah, and even the tithes that you [Korach – as a Levite] receive must have a portion taken from them to be given to the Kohen.’ This is what the second half of the verse in Mishlei (14:1) refers to when it says, ‘but a foolish woman destroys [her house] with her hands’ – for this is the wife of Korach.”
While this Talmudic passage definitely adds a fascinating dimension to the story, there is one thing about it that seems odd. What I’m referring to is the interpretation of the pasuk in Mishlei. It seems that when the Torah says, “Each wise woman builds her house but a foolish woman destroys [her house] with her hands,” the prime examples that come to the Sages’ mind are the wives of Korach and On. Why is this so? While granted these women do match the description, can we not find any better examples of the wise or destructive woman? Why not choose Devorah HaNaviah who led Bnei Yisraelwith wisdom for many years? Is she not a wise woman who builds her house? Or why not pick Rachel and Leah, who, according to Megillas Rus, “built the house of Israel”? And is the Torah short on destructive women who destroy their house with their hands? What about Delilah, wife of Shimshon, who quite literally caused a house to be destroyed and essentially killed her husband within? In what way are the wives of Korach and On – whose existence is not even mentioned in the Written Torah – the prototype women?