By Rabbi Ari KahnThe time was ripe for a power grab: The frightful report of the spies and the unequivocal sentence handed down were still ringing in the peoples’ ears; the Promised Land never seemed farther away. The strategy was simple: Foment unrest, and stage a takeover. The tactics employed were cynical: Collect the disheartened, and create the facade of a united opposition. The message was populist: “All the people are holy.” (B’midbar 16:3). The results were disastrous: Death and even greater despair. The leader of this uprising was none other than Moshe’s own cousin, Korach.
What may have seemed like a unified revolt was more like a chimera, an impossible confederation between Korach, from the tribe of Levi, a trio of Reuvenites, and a larger group of other men, presumably all firstborn sons who, like the Reuvenites, considered themselves wrongly displaced priests: Until very recently, it would have been the firstborn sons who would have been the kohanim,religious and political leaders who served God in the newly-built Mishkan. Members of the tribe of Reuven, the eldest of Yaakov’s sons, as well as the firstborn sons of other families, forfeited this honor through poor judgment and sin; the Levites were appointed in their stead.
Korach was both power-hungry and an opportunist; in addition, he was a first class manipulator. He was well aware of the heartfelt disappointment of those who had been passed over, and set out to use it to his advantage. In what may have seemed an act of historic reconciliation, he, a member of one of the most illustrious families of the very tribe that had displaced the firstborn, reached out to form a coalition with them. As the new kohanim, and the stewards of the Mishkan, the Levites were more than simply those chosen to replace the firstborn who had sinned; they were actually complicit in what Korach must have described as Moshe’s greatest act of “infamy,” his call to wipe out the perpetrators of the sin of the golden calf. Foremost among those perpetrators were the firstborn; the people who sprang into action and carried out Moshe’s order to kill the sinners were from the tribe of Levi – arguably, even Korach himself had taken sword in hand. To make matters even worse, Korach pointed out, there was one guilty party in the golden calf debacle who had gotten off “scot free:” Moshe’s brother Aharon seems to have benefitted unduly from his family connections; Aharon, then, was the weak link on Moshe’s team.
Korach argues that the firstborn, despite their sin, are still holy. This statement, coming from a member of the privileged clan of Levi, had tremendous impact on those who felt wronged. Charmed by his words and seduced by his apparent sincerity and empathy for their loss, two hundred and fifty men mobilized to shore up Korach’s rebellion.
Yet the two other heads of this three-headed monster cannot be easily reconciled with one another. If Korach himself will become the new high-priest, how does this help the three Reuvenites who stood shoulder to shoulder with Korach? If they are to reclaim the role of the kohanim for their tribe, where does that leave the firstborn sons of the other tribes?
The person who saw through the deception and realized that Korach’s words were no more than demagoguery was the wife of one of the original conspirators, On, son of Pelet - a man who is not only a hapax legomenon but a complete mystery in terms of his disappearance. As the rebellion takes shape, Korach bands together with Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliav, and On son of Pelet - all from the tribe of Reuven. And yet, as the rebellion unfolds, On seems to vanish. In the final act, all the other co-conspirators perish, while On is never heard from again.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b-110a) fills in the details of On’s disappearance, and identifies On’s wife as the heroine of this cautionary tale. On’s wife sees that Korach is taking advantage of the feelings of guilt, frustration and loss that are running rife among the firstborn men. She understands immediately that Korach is making cynical use of their anguish, and using them as pawns in his own game. She understands that although Korach, too, feels he has been slighted, allowing him to feign empathy for the others, he will not hesitate to cast his allies aside when his own desires are fulfilled. She sees that the endgame is poorly conceived and unrealistic; the chimera really has only one head, and that is Korach; the others are being played. Mrs. On spells it out for her idealist husband: “You will never be the leader. You have only one choice to make: Will you follow Moshe, or Korah?” “My ‘comrades’ will soon be here to collect me, so that we may march together in protest,” he worries. She gives him a drink, puts him to bed, and says, “I will take care of this.”
Knowing that the battle cry of this revolution is “Everyone is holy,” (16:3) she stands at the entrance to their tent and brushes her uncovered hair. The other rebels arrive; upon seeing a married woman’s uncovered hair, they quickly turn around and walk away rather than cast their eye on such immodesty. These “holy” people were willing to rebel against Moshe, to slander Aharon, to cast aspersions on those chosen by God Himself, and to undermine the faith of the entire nation – but they were not willing to look at a married woman’s hair.
This Talmudic passage gives full expression to Korach’s manipulation and to the tragic gullibility of his followers. Korach convinces them that they are as holy, if not more holy, than Moshe and Aharon. He convinces them that they should be the ones to don the clothing of the kohen. He convinces them to take incense in hand and approach the Mishkan – despite the fact that even bona fide kohanim who brought incense when not specifically commanded to do so had perished in the Sanctuary. And like Nadav and Avihu, the 250 faux-kohanim perish. Korach, Datan and Aviram, who sent their duped followers to their deaths, do not make that mistake. They never put on the clothing of the kohen, nor do they bring incense; they know what the consequences will be.
In fact, for these three men, the entire charade had very little to do with holiness; that was merely the bait they used to lure in their supporters. For Korach, Datan and Aviram, the rebellion had been about leverage and power from the very start. They hoped that Moshe would retire in order to preserve unity. They expected that this modest, selfless public servant would retreat, and take Aharon with him.
Korach, Datan and Aviram had a very different agenda than the other participants in the rebellion, and different fates awaited them. The two hundred and fifty men who joined Korach in a desperate and misguided attempt to serve God had been led astray by a man who sought glory, power, honor – not holiness. This naïve but misguided group truly sought holiness, and like Nadav and Avihu, they were consumed by a fire that came from God. They departed in a blaze, like a sacrifice on the altar. Korach, Datan and Aviram, on the other hand, sunk into ignominy. They fell into a never-ending abyss.
Only one of the conspirators lived through this episode: On, the son of Pelet, was saved by his wife’s keen insight and decisive action. She understood Korach’s strategy, and saw through his tactics. She understood the tragic, warped piety of the firstborn men who joined the rebellion, men who saw themselves as holier than Aharon, holier even than Moshe - so holy that they could be stopped in their tracks by a few strands of hair.