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Parashat Korach: The Disappearing Act of Ohn ben Peles by Yaakov Bieler

June 23, 2011 by  
Filed under New Posts

A character who vanishes from the biblical text after a single mention.

Ohn ben Peles, who is mentioned among Korach’s cohorts in the very first verse in the Parasha (BaMidbar 16:1), is another biblical character surrounded by mystery.[1]  After Ohn is identified as one of the key plotters enlisted by Korach, he disappears entirely, never to be mentioned again.[2]  The other conspirators, Korach, Datan, Aviram, and the 250 men who joined them, are all described as meeting supernatural premature deaths—see BaMidbar 16:32, 35.[3]   By contrast, Ohn ben Peles is not referred to in any way, and therefore the reader does not know whether he lives or dies. One would think that if Ohn was central enough to the rebellion to be mentioned at the outset, the Tora would have made sure to inform us what ultimately happened to him.

A Rabbinic hypothesis accounting for Ohn’s disappearance, contrasting the contributions of two particular women.

                Rav in Sanhedrin 109b-110a (the discussion is also recorded in BaMidbar Rabba 18:20 and Midrash Tanchuma Parashat Korach #10) proposes that the omission of Ohn from among the Korach rebellion’s casualties is due to his withdrawal from the insurrection as a result of a discussion with his wife and the consequent strategy that she devises, before the final confrontation and punishment of the rebels can take place.

Rav said: Ohn ben Peles was saved by his wife.

She said to him: “Why does it matter to you? Whether the one (Moshe) remains the master, or the other (Korach [master of the entire people]; an alternative version: Aharon [the High Priest]) becomes the master, you will remain only a follower.”

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, (BaMidbar 16:3) ‘seeing the entire congregation is holy, every one of them.’”[4] “So”, she continued, “Stay here and I will save you.”

She gave him wine to drink, intoxicated him, and laid him down within the tent. Then she sat down at the entrance thereto and loosened her hair. Whoever came to summon him saw her and retreated.[5]   

Meanwhile, Korach’s wife joined the rebels and said to him (Korach): “See what Moshe has done. He himself has become king; his brother he appointed High Priest; his brother’s sons he made vice High Priests. If Teruma is brought, he decrees, ‘Let it be for the priest.’[6] If Ma’aser is brought, which belongs to you (the Levi’im),[7] he orders, ‘Give a tenth part to the priest.’[8] Moreover, he has had your hair cut off,[9] 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!”[10]   

She replied: “Since all greatness was his, he also said, (Shoftim 16:30) ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’[11] Moreover, he has commanded you, Set fringes of blue wool at the corners of your garments.[12] But if there is virtue in blue wool, then bring forth blue wool, and clothe your entire group with it.”[13]

Thus it is written: (Mishlei 14:1) “Every wise woman builds her house”—this refers to the wife of Ohn ben Peles; “but the foolish woman pulls it down with her hands”—this refers to Korach’s wife.

A less well-known Midrashic source[14] fleshes out the story still further:

When the earth opened to swallow Korach’s company (BaMidbar 16:31-2), the bed on which Ohn still slept, began first to rock, and then to roll to the opening in the earth (into which the other plotters had fallen).

Ohn’s wife, however, seized the bed, saying, “Oh Lord of the World, my husband made a solemn vow never again to take part in dissensions. You Who Live and Endures throughout all of Eternity can punish him should he ever violate his vow.”

God Heard her plea, and Ohn was saved. She now requested Ohn to go to Moshe, but he refused because he was ashamed to look into Moshe’s face after he had rebelled against him.

His wife then went to Moshe in his stead. Moshe at first evaded her, because he wished to have nothing to do with women,[15]  but as she wept and lamented bitterly, she was admitted and told Moshe all that had occurred.

He now accompanied her to her house, at the entrance of which he cried, “Ohn ben Peles step forward. God Will Forgive you your sins.”

It is with reference to this miraculous deliverance and his life spent doing penance that this former follower of Korach was called “Ohn” “the penitent”, son of “Peles” “the miracle.” His true name was Nemuel ben Eliav, brother of Datan and Aviram.

            The end of this second Midrash parallels an earlier comment in Sanhedrin 109b made by Reish Lakish with regard to Ohn’s name, where even the phrase “Benai Reuven”, which applies to Datan and Aviram as well, is interpreted specifically with reference to Ohn: [16]

“Ohn”—that he sat in lamentations (as in Beraishit 35:18) because he deeply regretted what he had gotten himself into and realized that had it not been for his wife’s desperate intervention, he would have been executed along with his co-conspirators).

“Peles”—that wonders were done on his behalf.[17]

“the son(s) of Reuven”—a son who saw (“Ra’ah”) and understood 

(“Heivin”)[18]

Analyzing the assumptions underlying this Rabbinic approach.

            Rav’s speculations regarding the story of Ohn ben Peles, coupled with the additional Midrashic material appearing in Midrash HaGadol on BaMidbar 16:32, entail a number of assumptions that deserve reflection:

1.  Both Ohn and Korach confided in their wives regarding their plottings. (A parallel to Esther 5:11-14; 6:13?) One spouse was helpful; the other was destructive.

              2.   Mrs. Ohn might have been more enthusiastic about the rebellion, if her husband would have been in a position to personally benefit.  But since she recognized that Ohn’s status would remain essentially  the same regardless of who will prevail, what was the point of  “rolling the dice”? This makes her advice more pragmatic than

spiritual.

3.  While Ohn felt an obligation to the other plotters in terms of the oath that he had taken, Mrs. Ohn was prepared to create a pretense that would put her husband into a position which would technically  allow him to avoid honoring the promise that he had made.

4.  Mrs. Ohn was ready to give the impression that she was less than modest, or at least unaware of her immodesty, in order to avoid having her husband participate in Korach’s rebellion. Is this a justified, legitimate example of the principle of “Aveira LeShma” (a sin for the sake of heaven, i.e., a wife engaging in immodesty so that her husband could be spared.) To what extent is this a proper parallel to the example of Yael [Shoftim 4:17 ff.] particularly in light of the Talmud’s interpretation in Nazir 23b that she seduced Sisra in order to be able to kill him?

5.  In stark contrast to Mrs. Ohn, Mrs. Korach poured fuel onto the fire of the rebellion, providing additional justifications for overthrowing Moshe and his family. We have no additional information  about these women, let alone even their names or genealogy, and therefore cannot draw any conclusions about how they came to take these two contrasting positions, other than to posit that wives just like husbands, can be blinded by jealously and ambition on the one  hand, and exercise prudence and level-headedness on the other.

              6.  Even Korach appears to feel that his wife has gone too far in her accusations, but she has a ready answer for his objection. Logical arguments are not always useful in determining the truth and the proper path one ought to take, since logic can readily be enlisted  to justify what is right as well as what is wrong.

              7.  Rav attributes to Mrs. Korach the idea for the symbolic demonstration whereby all of Korach’s followers clothe themselves  in garments that are dyed totally Techelet—see fn. 13. Although an  individual may be depicted as the advocate of a particular point of view, the proposal may have originated elsewhere.

              8.  While Mrs. Ohn was under the impression that she could save her husband from the consequences of his actions, God was not prepared initially to ignore Ohn’s role, particularly when he had sworn to carry out the plot together with the others. Oaths are not to be taken lightly, and they can have far-ranging and even lethal consequences.

9.  If Ohn had already failed to honor the vow that he had made to the co-conspiritors,    why should an additional vow never again to become involved in such matters carry any weight? This would  have to be understood as a manifestation of HaShem’s Compassion, Readiness to grant second and third chances, and His Perception

     that Ohn was a true penitent.

            10.  The fact that HaShem Responds to Mrs. Ohn’s prayers, but not to those of Ohn himself, either suggests that the latter was so despondent and plagued with guilt that he did not bother to pray, or that his previous sinful actions were of the sort that deprived him of  the right to pray to be spared.

             11. While it might be understandable why Ohn was ashamed to face Moshe, it would appear that his lack of readiness to do so, suggests a lack of total repentance. When an individual has wronged another person, s/he must ask for forgiveness personally as part of the Teshuva process. It well may have been that Ohn was mortified, but

                    at some point, if not sooner, than at least later, he should have had the courage to own up to what he had done. Could the text’s omitting any subsequent mention of him suggest that he became a recluse out of embarrassment?

             12. It probably should be assumed that Moshe was in no position to grant forgiveness to     Ohn for what he had done against HaShem, but rather only for the distress that his actions had caused Moshe. Once Mrs. Ohn recounts how HaShem Put an end to the process whereby Ohn’s bed would have followed Korach and the others into the pit,

                    Moshe concludes that if Ohn is forgiven by God, that he too must grant his personal forgiveness to this penitent.

Conclusion.

           These Midrashic descriptions of the interaction between Ohn and his wife and Korach and his wife, provide us with extensive and intriguing food for thought regarding how one is to conduct him/herself once there is a realization that a sin has been committed. The Rabbis take a mysterious man’s single name and turn it into a cautionary tale full of moral and spiritual contrasts and lessons.


[1] The essay on Shelach

(http://text.rcarabbis.org/parashat-shelach-kalevs-shining-hour-by-yaakov-bieler/) focuses on the mystery of why Kalev became motivated to oppose the negative report of the majority of the spies. Kalev’s mystery, however, does not involve his disappearance from the text, as in the cases of Ohn and Chur. It is one thing to speculate about the inner thoughts that precipitate explicitly recorded actions in the biblical text. It quite another when one had to imagine not only the psychology of a character, but even what s/he may have or have not done.

[2] Ohn’s disappearance parallels that of Chur, who after being identified as a v.i.p. on the level of Aharon—he helps support Moshe’s hands during the war with Amalek (Shemot 17:10, 12), and is identified as the other individual in charge of the encampment during Moshe’s sojourn on Mt. Sinai (Shemot 24:14)—also disappears, leading to speculation concerning what became of him—see Sanhedrin 7a. See the essay on Shmini (http://text.rcarabbis.org/aharons-reversals-of-fortune-and-unflagging-courage/ )

[3] While in 16:32, Korach, Datan and Aviram are not mentioned by name, it is specifically their habitations, identified in 16:27, and therefore, they and their families that are swallowed up by the earth in 16:32.

[4] Ohn’s wife’s comment regarding the holiness of the people is interpreted as referring to the fact that were she to sit immodestly in front of their tent, even the rebels would not insist upon drawing close due to their sense of propriety when it comes to matters of personal modesty. Since no one would come near her, Ohn could continue to sleep undisturbed until the rebellion had been resolved one way or the other.

[5] According to the rules of modesty and propriety, an unmarried woman should not be looked upon by anyone other than her husband when her hair is loosened. This is why the public loosening of the hair of the Sota by the Kohen is so humiliating—see BaMidbar 5:18.

[6] Devarim 18:4.

[7] BaMidbar 18:21.

[8] Ibid. 18:26.

[9] Ibid.  8:7.

[10] Since Moshe is also a Levi, it is illogical to assume that he would not have subjected himself to the same measures that God Instructed him to apply to the rest of the tribe of Levi.

[11] These are the words of the request that Shimshon made to HaShem, just prior to his causing the collapse of the Philistine Temple, thereby killing the numerous dignitaries that had gathered within it to witness his humiliation at the hands of his captors. This specific term already in the times of the Talmud, right on up to the present day, connotes a desire for revenge so palpable, that the individual calling for it is ready to undergo any personal indignity, even death—in the case of the Moshe and the Levi’im, having one’s hair cut off. Even when his main objective is to have others undergo it, he is so committed to making this happen that he will even  subject himself to the same indignity.

[12] Ibid. 15:38.

[13] Usually, the origin of the argument, that while a blue thread (a specific Divinely Designated leader) might be needed in order to fulfill a white garment’s (a community consisting of individuals who are less holy than the leader) obligation of having Tzitzit hung from its four corners, were the garment to be completely colored Techelet itself (everyone was equally spiritually superior), then no such leader would be necessary, is attributed to Korach himself, as in RaShI on BaMidbar 16:1 d.h. Datan VeAviram, and BaMidbar Rabba 18:3. In the instance of this Midrash, Korach’s wife is identified as the origin of the concept.

[14] Tora Shleima, ed. R. Menachem Kasher, Parashat Korach, p. 57, #222; Louis Ginzburg, in The Legends of the Jews (Vol. III, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1968, pp. 301-2; Yishai Chasida, Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities, Mashabim, Yerushalayim, 1994, p. 63.

[15] The Midrash’s attributing to Moshe a concern about involving himself with women is an apparent extension of the tradition that he separated from Tziporra once he climbed Sinai to receive the Tora. Such a contention, which is not accepted by all commentators—see e.g., Ibn Kaspi on BaMidbar 12:1, where he prefers the interpretation in ChaZaL that Miriam and Aharon were upset not about Moshe’s leaving Tziporra, but rather his marrying an additional Ethiopian woman besides Tziporra—is based upon a strict reading of Devarim 5:27—“You, Moshe must stay here with Me, in contrast to the rest of the Jewish people who can return to their spouses once the Ten Commandments has been received”—as well as the Talmud’s comment in Yevamot 62a claiming that God complimented Moshe for separating from his wife. 

[16] Particularly the end of Midrash HaGadol, as opposed to Reish Lakish’s comments in Sanhedrin which ignore “bnai Reuven”, attribute to Ohn a completely different given name, asserting that Ohn ben Peles is a descriptive name given to him after all of these events happened to him. Others who may have multiple names, with variations between given and descriptive names, are Miriam and Yocheved (Shifra and Puah) and Yitro (Chovav, Re’u’el, etc.) Such an approach is further substantiated by recognizing that “Peles” is not listed in the genealogy of the tribe of Reuven, as we would have expected it to be.

[17] As in Shemot 15:11. Either it was a miracle in the eyes of others that Ohn was spared the fate of Korach’s supporters, or MaHaRShA connects “Peles” to Shemot 8:18 where the root “Peh-Lamed-Alef“ is associated with “separation,” hence, Ohn separated himself or was separated from the insurgents.

[18] He perceived from the words of his wife that he had been drawn into a situation that was improper, and therefore he was ready to follow all of her advice in order to attempt to remove himself from the

fate of the plotters.

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