It was a time of wisdom; it was a time of folly. It was a study in contrasts, as two individuals emerged and had a profound influence, one positive and the other negative, on the fate of others[i].
One awesome person saved her spouse from harm and is a source of inspiration to all those seeking understanding and discernment to this day. The other was instrumental in assuring her spouse’s spectacular failure and, as a couple, they reinforced each other’s negative attributes. They were an object lesson in the evils of narcissism, unscrupulous manipulation, moral relativism, shameless opportunism and hubris.
The setting was the desert encampment of the people of Israel, in the aftermath of the Sin of the Spies[ii]. Most of the adult population had been cowered[iii] by the insidious and negative reports of the ten so-called leaders, who had been selected by Moses to be a part of the cadre of Spies[iv]. The remaining two were Caleb and Joshua. Caleb was moved by a different spirit than the others[v]. Joshua[vi] was Moses’ protégé and under his tutelage. Moses prayed for Joshua not to be swayed by the counsel of the other Spies[vii] and Joshua successfully kept his own counsel. The elite group of twelve men was sent by Moses to visit and reconnoiter the Promised Land, in advance of entry by the entire people of Israel. The negative messaging[viii] of the notorious ten resonated within the ranks of the nation of former slaves[ix]. The ten reported that it would be impossible to go up to the Land, because the people would be unable to overcome the strong defenses. Caleb and Joshua tried in vain to dispute the fake news; but their voices were drowned out[x]. Rather than embracing the opportunity to return to their patrimony, the people balked[xi].
It was an unmitigated disaster. The people were despondent and G-d was angry with them[xii]. G-d heard Moses’ impassioned plea[xiii] and, ironically, gave the people the very thing they had asked for[xiv], not to face the challenge of conquering the Land. Instead, they were to wander the desert for 40 years. It was, effectively, a life sentence, without parole, for all adults, over the age of 20 at the time of the Sin of the Spies, other than Joshua and Caleb[xv]. The predictable reaction for most was one of depression and despair. They were so close to acquiring the Promised Land of Israel and fulfilling the promise, which G-d had made to the Patriarchs. However, because of their own folly and under the spell of the misguided leadership of the infamous ten, they suffered a self-inflicted defeat. It would be their children, who would inherit the Promised Land[xvi].
The Bible, in this week’s Torah reading, reports[xix] that it began at a fateful gathering called by Korach. He claimed a presumptive leadership role by reason of his kinship[xx], in what he perceived to be the ruling class of Levites, headed by Moses and his brother Aaron. He was a very wealthy man[xxi] and, due in no small measure to the urging of his wife[xxii], he was particularly conscious of his standing and position. Korach invited Dathan, Abiram and On ben Peleth into his plot to seize power from Moses. They were chosen because they too had pretensions to leadership, as members of the Tribe of Reuben, Jacob’s first born.
The Talmud[xxiii] analyzes the global issue of the Korach rebellion in a more relatable context. Its perspective is focused primarily on the character and family life of the main actor, Korach and that of a lesser player, On ben Peleth. The dynamics of each person’s relationship with his spouse is also considered. The contrast between the two relationships speaks volumes about the ultimate outcome.
The Talmud derives extremely valuable lessons about human nature from the life experience of these two couples. The analysis informs us as to some of the reasons why some couples are able to overcome the challenges of life, while others are consumed by them. The differences between the two couples’ spousal relationships are cogent, as detailed below.
The Talmud expresses this real life drama with genuine flair. Its report of the dialogue between each of the pairs of spouses is vivid, sometimes gritty and most engaging. The words and emotions expressed are so real and recognizable. The lessons taught are nuanced but understandable.
The decline and fall of Korach is not some abstract political study nor is On’s survival a mere footnote to history. These were real people, who had aspirations, egos, multi-faceted characters and flaws. They made real-life mistakes. Yet On was saved from his own folly at the penultimate moment, while Korach rushed head on towards his ultimate demise.
Was there an intervening event or force that helped determine the different outcomes each experienced? After all, On was no hero. He was a consenting adult, who voluntarily joined in Korach’s plot. What then changed On’s fate from that suffered by his co-conspirators, as a result of the Korach rebellion?
The Talmud begins by exploring the meaning of each name of the individual plotters. The names are viewed as a literary device, which yields insights into the natures of the various characters in this real-life drama.
On ben Peleth’s first name is said to imply he was a loner, who acted as if he were in a perpetual state of mourning. It is derived from the word “Aninut”, a term used to describe the immediate family’s most intense state of mourning, between the time the decedent passes on and interment. It is an acute period of loneliness, prior to the Shiva, when condolence calls are permitted. The name Peleth is derived from the word “Pelah”, which means amazing or wondrous. As the Talmud describes it, he was saved due to the amazing intervention of his wife. She was awesome, as detailed below.
Korach, on the other hand, was a master manipulator. The Bible[xxiv] reports he made an acquisition but does not specify what he acquired. The Talmud[xxv] explains it refers to owning his ego driven self-satisfying actions; a bad acquisition, which drove him from the world.
The name Korach literally means bald. However, Korach was not bald. Indeed, as the Talmud notes, his wife pointed out that he had great hair. She even taunts her husband Korach about it, by suggesting Moses was jealous of his beautiful mane. She asserts that this was why Moses shaved off all of Korach’s hair. Never mind that Moses’ hair, as well as that of all the Levites, was also shaved. She urged that it was all a part of Moses’ plan to demean her husband Korach. She didn’t mince words and goes so far as to make the gritty proclamation that Moses rolled Korach like a piece of excrement. The manipulator Korach had a master, his spouse.
The Talmud[xxvi] explains that name Korach implies that he created a void (bald spot) in the people of Israel because, as a result of his misdeeds, so many were killed. As the Talmud goes on to say, the Biblical reference to his father’s name, Yitzhar, means he incited the wrath of others, like the heat of the afternoon (Tzohoraim). The Biblical reference to his grandfather’s name, Kehat, was intended to disclose another facet of his character. The Talmud notes that the name Kehat is related to the term “Hikah” meaning blunt, as in Korach blunted his ancestor’s teeth. In essence, he shamed his ancestors by his conduct.
It is suggested that the term bald as used in this context is also idiomatic. Taken as a whole, the usage is much like the phrase “bald faced”, which means shameless. Both Korach and his wife were unscrupulous manipulators, who shamelessly used people to accomplish their goals of promoting themselves and their interests.
It would appear that Korach and his wife had classic sociopathic tendencies[xxvii]. They were selfish, prideful, clever and manipulative. They also had superficial charm, which Korach used to good effect in attracting and conning his followers. Korah and his wife rejected the system of Halacha and the universal moral code embodied in the Torah. They had their own set of morals based on what was good for them. They used clever wordplay to advance specious legal arguments in order to undermine the Divine origin, authenticity and validity of the Torah, as taught by Moses. For example, Korach questioned why a mezuzah, containing a few lines from the Torah, should be required in a room full of Torah scrolls. He asserted the law was irrational and invented by Moses.
Korach’s wife also contrived another similar gambit. She suggested that Moses had fabricated the commandment that the ritual fringes (known as Tzizit), required for a four-cornered garment, include a Techelet[xxviii] colored strand. She asserted that if the Techelet coloring was so important, then why not dye the entire garment Techelet? Why the need for just a strand of Techelet? She urged Korach to assemble a group of men clothed in Talitim, without ritual fringes, but which were entirely dyed Techelet. Korach then paraded them in front of Moses and, using his wife’s logic, derisively challenged the rule requiring only a Techelet colored strand. The shocking and insincere spectacle was designed to cause ridicule and derision. It was a pretext to undermine the authority of the Torah and Moses.
Korach and his wife blamed Moses for their failure to achieve the position in society they felt they deserved. They disdained any personally responsibility for their own situation. They were unabashed in their quest for power and exhibited no remorse or shame. Moses stood in their way and so they callously sought to displace him. Given the results of their misadventure, it is clear they had extremely poor judgment and lacked genuine insight. They also felt no accountability to others and were not mindful of the consequences of their actions.
The Talmud, in striking contrast, recounts what happened when On returned home on the evening of his fateful meeting with Korach. Imagine the small talk upon his arrival home. His wife might have casually asked him how his day went. He responded by reporting his meeting with Korach and the boys and what they had decided. She listened carefully and asked him why he was involved in the nefarious scheme to overthrow Moses? What difference did it make to him who was the leader? After all, under Moses he was a follower and that would be the case even if Korach took over as leader. On considered his wife’s wise counsel and came to recognize his folly. However, he did not know what he could do under the circumstances. He was stuck, because he had been a part of the cabal of plotters and swore allegiance to them. Never mind that Korach had manipulated him into this position. The quandary was very real to On. His wife’s answer was a clarion call to all those who have found themselves in these kind of difficult situations. In effect, she advised him to stop, wake-up and face up to the fact that what Korach enlisted him to do was wrong. On’s assurance that he would be a faithful partner in crime was also wrong. She offered that he should sit down and she would save him from himself. She gave him wine to drink and he fell asleep in a drunken stupor. She then sat at the entrance to the tent they called home and loosened her hair as though preparing to wash it. Anyone, who came by was taken aback by the display and retreated. In the meantime, the rebellion of Korach occurred, on time as planned; but failed miserably. Korach and his cohorts were swallowed up by the ground[xxix] and delivered alive to the Sheol[xxx]. Through his wife’s efforts and prowess in dealing with the situation, On missed his appointment with destiny and was saved.
On’s spouse genuinely cared about him. She listened carefully to him and understood his motivations. She did not taunt him; she empathized with him. She formulated a plan and acted to save him from his self-destructive path.
Korach was not so lucky. His spouse cared only about herself. She egged him on and set him upon his risky and self-destructive course of action. She did this because she hoped it would lead to her becoming the First Lady. She was not mindful of his answers to her vicious taunts or considerate of his circumstances. If she genuinely cared about him, then she would have helped him carefully analyze his situation. A great deal of pain and suffering might have been avoided if only she cared about his fate. She should have been concerned about the risks her husband was taking. She also didn’t perceive the blowback she and her children might suffer if his putsch failed. In the end, the rebellion was miraculously foiled by G-d and both she and Koarch suffered a unique and unprecedented punishment[xxxi].
It is a tale of two different households. The varied reactions of each of the couples to the challenges they faced were, in no small part, determinative of the outcomes. The highly stressed and pressurized environment of life often exposes character flaws, but it is also a catalyst for the manifestation of true nobility.
The power of caring is in the execution. On’s wife cared and her empathy, wise counsel and constructive action saved her husband’s life.
Go home and show your spouse and family you genuinely care. Do something constructive to help them. It is an awesome thing to do. Why not tell your spouse he or she is awesome. The warm smile it usually generates makes it all worthwhile. Kudos to all the awesome people, who care enough to help another in their time of need and wishing them a hearty L’Chaim.
[i] See Proverbs 14:1, which states that the wisest of women builds her house; but folly tears it down with her own hands.
[ii] Numbers, Chapter 13 and 14.
[iii] Numbers 14:2-4.
[iv] Numbers 13:3.
[v] Number 14:24, as well as, 13:16 and 13:30. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah, at page 35a.
[vi] Numbers 13:16 and see Rashi and Sforno commentaries thereon.
[vii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah, at page 34b.
[viii] Numbers 13:28-31.
[ix] Numbers 13:32.
[x] Number 14:6-9.
[xi] Numbers 14:3-4.
[xii] Numbers 14:11-13.
[xiii] Numbers 14:13-19.
[xiv] Numbers 14:19-23.
[xv] Numbers 14:30.
[xvi] Numbers 14: 31.
[xvii] Numbers 16:1-4.
[xviii] Numbers 16:1-.
[xix] Number 16:1.
[xx] Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 18.
[xxi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, at page 119a.
[xxii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at pages 109b-110a.
[xxiv] Numbers 16:1.
[xxv]Ibid. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 109b and Rashi commentary thereon.
[xxvi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 109b.
[xxvii] Ibid and see also Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 18 and Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 10. Reference should also be made to the discussion of this term in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
[xxviii] A unique color mentioned in connection with the commandment of Tzizit in Numbers 15:38. The color dye pigment is derived from the Chilazon, an aquatic or semi-aquatic creature. It produces a permanent color said to resemble the blue sky. See Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Menachot (at pages 43b-44a) and Shabbos (at page 75a).
[xxix] Number 16:30-33
[xxx] The term Sheol (literally meaning, pit) is equated to Gehinnom (purgatory). See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin, at page 19a.
[xxxi] Numbers 16:31-33.