Korach’s Wife and On’s Wife: How to Prevent Quarrel?

Parashat Korach presents the story of Korach and his followers who rebel against Moses and question his authority: the whole congregation is holy, they say, why should you (Moses) be considered the holiest?

The result of this controversy is severe, Korach and his followers are swallowed by the earth while they are alive, and they are lost forever underground.

Botticcelli, The Punishment of Korach

Rashi suggests that the case of Korach and his followers is a case that should be studied and discussed throughout the year because there is always strife and quarrel among men. Seen from this perspective we can consider Korach’s story as a story about a quarrel that ends in disaster. The Sages add the story of Korach’s wife and the story of On son of Pelet’s wife as two stories that can teach us two different ways to deal with quarrel and strife.

When her husband returns home after having shaved his hair, according to the purifying of the Levites, Korach’s wife complains that Moses took kingdom for himself and priesthood for his brother, receives tithes and now also demands that the Levites shave their heads… When Korach points out that Moses shaved his own head too, his wife dismissively suggests that he shaved himself with the sole purpose of forcing all the members of his tribe to shave.

Korach’s wife makes her husband see himself as being personally wronged. Seeing Mose’s status as a personal insult, sets Korach on a collision course with Moses, and finally leads him and his followers towards disaster.

On son of Pelet’s wife takes a different perspective. When her husband returns, and tells her about the quarrel with Moses, his wife gently points out that he has nothing to gain from this strife. If Moses is the leader, you will be his follower, and if Korach is leader, you’re position will remain unchanged. You have everything to lose and nothing to gain, she tells him.

When On agrees with her, but does not know how to save himself from the conundrum, she tells him, don’t worry, I will take care of it. She prepares a nice dinner, and gives her husband wine that makes him drunk. While he sleeps, she sits at the entrance with her hair down. When Korach and his followers come to call On, they are appalled to see his immodest wife, and walk away. When the earth tries to swallow On, his wife stands before the Lord and asks for her husband’s life: he has repented and vowed he will never take part in quarrel and strife, and thus saves his life.

By pointing out the futility of his involvement in the quarrel, On’s wife suggests an impersonal perspective, that allows On to disconnect from the quarrel. That is why the Sages describe her as a wise woman who buildeth her house.

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