Parashat Korach : The women behind the men emerge. Take a bow Ms On ben Pelet

The rebellion of Korach is a powerful and pivotal moment in Torah, as the leadership of Moses and Aaron is challenged by their cousin who proclaims that they have taken too much of the power for themselves, that all the people were holy, and Moses and Aaron are raising themselves up above the ‘kehal adonai’ the community of God.

With Datan and Abiram the sons of Eliav, and On the son of Pelet, all of them grandchildren of Reuben the oldest son of Jacob, Korach the great grandson of Levi, third son of Jacob and ancestor of Moses and Aaron, musters 250 men of stature – this is emphasised in the text: “n’si’ei eidah, k’ri’ei mo’ed, anshei shem – princes of the congregation, elect men of the community, men of renown”.

The testosterone level is so high in this story we can practically smell it. The clashing of antlers of the big beasts jousting for power and control. There might be a pretence about the need for all the people to be recognised as holy, but the reality is clear that this is a palace coup, and Moses doesn’t know what to do.

A great deal has been written about this, but I want to focus today on one of the more minor characters, On ben Pelet. Because while he is there at the beginning of the revolution he is missing from its denouement. And he doesn’t appear again.  The other rebels go down into the yawning pit as the earth opens, On ben Pelet however simply disappears from history.  Why?

The midrash provides a wonderful explanation. His wife gets involved. In this testosterone soaked challenge the men have essentially lost the plot. Where there are reasonable grounds for saying that Moses and Aaron have taken on too much of the leadership, there is no accountability and there is no transparency, the plotters went too far themselves, scenting regime change. It takes, in the view of the midrash, the calm and thoughtful intervention of the women we never really see (except as witnesses to the divine destruction of the hard line conspirators).

Talmud tells us this: (BT Sanhedrin 109b-110a)

“Rav said: On, the son of Pelet was saved by his wife. Said she to him, ‘What matters it to you? Whether the one [Moses] remains master or the other [Korach] becomes master, you will be nothing but a disciple.’ He replied, ‘But what can I do? I have taken part in their counsel, and they have sworn me [to be] with them.’ She said, ‘I know that they are all a holy community, as it is written, “seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them. [So,]’ she proceeded, ‘Sit here, and I will save you.’ She gave him wine to drink, intoxicated him and laid him down inside [the tent]. Then she sat down at the entrance and loosened her hair. Whoever came [to summon him] saw her and retreated. Meanwhile, Korach’s wife joined them [the rebels] and said to him [Korach], ‘See what Moses has done. He himself has become king; his brother he appointed High Priest; his brother’s sons he made vice High Priests. If Terumah is brought, he decrees, Let it be for the priest; if the tithe is brought, which belongs to you [i.e., to the Levite], he orders, Give a tenth part of it to the priest. Moreover, he has had your hair cut off, and makes sport of you as though you were dirt; for he was jealous of your hair.’ Said he to her, ‘But he has done likewise!’ She replied, ‘Since all the greatness was his, he said also, Let me die with the Philistines. Moreover, he has commanded you, Set [fringes] of blue wool [in the corners of your garments]; but if there is virtue in blue wool, then bring forth blue wool, and clothe your entire academy with it.  And so it is written, Every wise woman builds her house — this refers to the wife of On, the son of Pelet; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands — to Korach’s wife.”

The Talmudic midrash sees the minor figure of On ben Pelet, notices his disappearance by the end of the story, and pins this on the even more minor figures of “the wives”.

The unnamed wife of On ben Pelet is a politician to her fingertips. She can see that her husband is of lowly status and is never likely to amount to much. Whoever wins in the rebellion, he will never be an important part of the hierarchy. He isn’t much of a catch, one gets the feeling, but he is hers and she would rather he were alive than dead. Whether this is love or not is irrelevant, his fate would have repercussions on her status, she does not want to be the widow of a dissident – that would make her even more vulnerable than she is now.

So, in time honoured fashion, she gets him drunk. We think of Boaz and Ruth, of Noah and his daughters, of Yael and Sisera – when a woman wants to get a man pliant and to do her bidding it seems, the answer is to ply him with intoxicants. The drunken On ben Pelet is ushered into the tent to sleep it off. But this is still not enough to ensure he doesn’t rouse and put himself – and her – into danger. So she sits at the entrance with loosened hair – immodest, sexually charged, a terror to the scouts who may come to demand his presence. Like Rachel she uses her body to prevent anyone coming to search. And her husband slumbers on all unknowing.

On ben Pelet is, in the story, a nudnik, a schlemiel, scion of a great family maybe, but incompetent and easily led. He needs all the skills of his competent wife to survive. And it would be lovely if the midrash ended there. But no, the Talmud having decided on a verse in Proverbs (14:1) feels the need to explicate the other half of it.

“Every wise woman builds her house; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands.”

The wise woman here is clearly aligned with the wife of On ben Pelet, but who is the foolish wife? After all, 250 men joined Korach, Datan and Abiram in the failed rebellion.

It is interesting to me that the midrash decides that the parallel is with the wife of Korach – the main protagonist in this affair. And more than that, they give her great knowledge and legalistic reasoning – this is an educated woman able to debate and hold her point.

She begins first with the nepotism: Moses has made himself king. He has made his brother the High Priest, he has made his brother’s sons vice High Priests – something that is new to this text. Then when the Terumah offering is brought, it is immediately taken up by his own close family. This food (or oil or wine) can only be eaten by the Cohanim. Korach being only a Levite, is not permitted to have use of it.

Then she points out the tithing which would go to the Levites – Moses had set a limit of a tenth to go to the priests.

Then she moves on to the cut hair done as part of the purification rites. Before her husband can object she layers meaning over it – Moses was jealous of Korach’s lovely hair. He now laughs at him once the hair is cut off and Korach is, presumably, less attractive. No matter that Moses also had his hair cut according to Korach, his wife clearly believes that the impact on Moses was much less than that on her husband. Moses comes out the winner.

Now she moves onto ritual grievances. Moses had told them to wear blue threads on the fringes of their garments, but this is simply tokenistic in her eyes – if blue is to be worn as a mark of honour, then the whole garment should be blue. Otherwise, her reasoning seems to be, there is no real honour, just pretence, a token and perfunctory nod to the status of her husband; Korach is damned by faint praise and his wife notices.

She is painted as an intelligent and ambitious woman. Curiously she too seems to have the upper hand in the relationship – and she gives Korach the intellectual underpinnings for his challenge.

But her ambition for her husband is too much. He is not a strategist, not really a leader. Having made his alliances his own thirst for power comes through – why else would On ben Pelet feel uneasy having agreed to join the alliance? Korach cannot deviate from the path he is on. He doesn’t seem to realise that the atmosphere is changing, that his leadership is doomed.

His wife too is given no more voice. Who knows whether she had she would have been able to persuade her husband to reverse his challenge. Instead we see from the text that Datan and Abiram, their wives and children, stand at the doorways of their tents; And we see the earth opening and everything that pertained to Korach was swallowed up alive into the pit. The 250 men who were offering their own incense were destroyed by divine fire. Yet curiously Korach and his wife are not mentioned in the text as explicitly as Datan and Abiram were. Did Mrs Korach have one last trick up her sleeve? Did they melt away from the scene of destruction they had caused, in the hope of living to fight another day?

Parashat Shelach Lecha: The faith of women is overlooked and the result is catastrophic

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: ב שְׁלַח־לְךָ֣ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְיָתֻ֨רוּ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֥י נֹתֵ֖ן לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אִ֣ישׁ אֶחָד֩ אִ֨ישׁ אֶחָ֜ד לְמַטֵּ֤ה אֲבֹתָיו֙ תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ כֹּ֖ל נָשִׂ֥יא בָהֶֽם:

God tells Moses to send men to travel round the land of Canaan, which God is giving to the children of Israel – one man from each ancestral tribe, each one a leader.

So begins the tale of the spies, whose return from reconnoitering the land  bringing stories of the hopelessness of the enterprise led to the people to become so disheartened that the story of the Israelites entering their promised land may easily have ended right here.  Certainly it becomes clear that the people are not yet ready to take the next step, and a prolonged sojourn in the wilderness as a new generation grows and takes over is necessary.

At first sight it seems a bit of an own goal – God tells Moses to send the men, trusted leaders who are – as Rashi says, commenting on the use of the word “anashim” – important and also righteous.  And yet the failure of leadership – apart from the perspectives of Joshua and Caleb – is catastrophic for the generation of the exodus.

The traditional commentators are interested in this story, in what went so badly wrong that the trajectory of the narrative was skewed and the journey that should have taken a short time ended up being one that took forty years.

Clearly there is a problem with the spies. Firstly comes the question of “shelach lecha” – a phrase that sounds so close to the divine commandment to Abraham “lech lecha”, and yet unlike Abraham’s journey of trust in God and of his own spiritual and material growth, this journey seems to be the exact opposite.

The casual reader might assume that a military reconnoitre of the land God is giving would be simple good practise. After all, even though God says “I am giving the land to the Children of Israel”,  surely a back-up plan is sensible.   But the reader trained to read through the Jewish texts will see this differently.

“Shelach lecha” – send “for yourself” – this is not something that God needed Moses to do, it was something that Moses and the children of Israel needed to do. Unlike  “Lech lecha” – Go to/for yourself” this is not a journey of discovery of the self, it is a journey to allay the fears the self already has. It bespeaks a lack of trust in God. The midrashic traditions picks this up – sending the men is a demonstration of lack of faith in God, but there is a further question we must ask. God is telling Moses not to simply have faith, but saying “you can send if you must”.

In the retelling of the story in Deuteronomy (1:20-46) it becomes clear from Moses’ speech that the request to send men does not come from God but from the people.  Moses tells the story like this “Behold, the Eternal your God has set the land before you, go up and take possession of it as the Eternal, the God of your ancestors told you. Do not fear and do not be dismayed. And you came to me, all of you, and said “Let us send men before us so that they will look out the land for us and bring us word of the way by which we should go up, and the cities we will encounter. And it seemed a good idea to me, and I took twelve men of you, one man for every tribe….”

This now begs the question, if it seemed not unreasonable that the people might want to know more about the land, and God – while not requiring this – did not command against it, then who SHOULD have been sent up to see the lay of the land?

The clue lies in the context of the story. It takes place just after the story of Miriam and the Cushite woman, where Miriam seems to be punished for speaking falsely, for asserting her own importance at the expense of another, and for showing lack of respect for others. A lesson needs to be learned, the question is – who has learned it?

Fantastically Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, (1550 – 1619) the scholar and poet and writer of his own Torah commentary (Kli Yekar) asks this question and answers it: Who should have been sent? The women!

He bases his opinion on a number of midrashic stories where it is the women who show themselves to have more faith than the men. They continue to have babies even when the Egyptian authorities try to murder their new-borns and their men refuse to have sexual relations with them. They protect their baby sons in this time. They refuse to give up their jewellery at first when the golden calf is created.  So when faith is really needed, it is the women who provide it.

The Kli Yekar notes that when the spies bring back their report of the difficulty of taking the land which is well protected and whose people look strong and powerful, the men revolt and want to return to Egypt.  In Chapter 14 the text is clear that while all the people wept, it was the men who said “why did God bring us to this land to fall by the sword, our wives and children will be prey, it would be better to return to Egypt. So they said to each other, let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt” (1:2-4). This establishes the lack of faith of the men for the Kli Yakar who goes on to compare this behaviour with that of the daughters of Zelophechad who specifically ask to be able to own the land of their father who had died without a male heir. For Rabbi Luntschitz this shows – along with all the other examples of women’s faith – that the faith of women is superior to that of the men, and hence if Moses had really wanted to send people on this errand that demonstrated a lack of complete faith in God, he should have sent women who would not have fallen so easily into the fearfulness and desire to return to Egypt rather than go forward into the land.

For the Kli Yekar Moses made a disastrous decision that was informed more by his prejudice about men’s roles and women’s roles and less by any empirical observation as to who had shown real faith in God.  Had Moses sent women to spy out the land (and it doesn’t seem to worry him that women might be functioning as army scouts, unlike some of today’s rabbonim) then they would have returned with the information and framed it in the same hopeful and faithful way that Joshua and Caleb did – it is a tough land to conquer but God is with us.

Add to this that the women have seen what happened to Miriam when she was banished with a skin complaint for her ungracious behaviour that had asserted her importance over the Cushite woman – they know that God is watching closely, that trusting in God is important.

But the men – Moses among them – are caught up with their own status. They are princes, they are leadership, they are important – they are anashim.  They have learned nothing, neither about God’s continued presence nor about humility and faith. Shelach lecha – it is all about them.  And when it fails, the answer is to find another leader from among their ranks and return to business as usual, go back to the safety of the slave routine of Egypt.

As the orthodox world continues to struggle with the role of women, perpetually trying to find ways to put us out of the public space and to assert the norms of the patriarchy, it is sobering to read the thoughts of one rabbi from the 16th century who recognised the need for women to come into the public space and be acknowledged for their own selves.

The Kli Yekar takes his name from the book of Proverbs 20:15 “Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel”

He is indeed a rare jewel, he speaks from within the tradition and he speaks a deep truth. Almost all commentators agree that God did not want Moses to send anyone to scout out the land – it was an act of lack of faith. But if someone did have to go to reassure the people, send people whose faith you can trust in- and who better in this case than the people who have demonstrated again and again their trust in God and in a better future?  – The women of the exodus.