FOLLOWER AND STUDENT
On ben Pelet is mentioned in Bamidbar 16:1 as one of the leaders in the Korach rebellion but then is not mentioned again. T.B. Sanhedrin 109b, 110a states that this is because he actually did teshuva and withdrew from the rebellion, praising his wife who caused him to reconsider his decision and assisted him in withdrawing from the rebellious group. The gemara explains that On’s wife challenged him as to the difference in being a follower of Moshe or a follower of Korach, in either case he was still the student. This question effectively caused On to change his mind for he then asks his wife what he is going to do as he has already sworn to his fellow conspirators that he will be with them. On’s wife then hatches a plan that ultimately saves On from the punishment that befell Korach’s congregation. It would seem, according to the gemara, that On’s wife prevailed upon On to leave Korach’s group by making him realize that, for him, there was really no difference in the two sides; in both cases he was simply choosing who to follow.1 Essentially, On’s wife caused her husband to contemplate the real nature of this disagreement and to determine whether it was then worth continuing.
There are many different reasons for the existence of disagreements. Some actually have value as indicated in Avot 5:17 and numerous other sources that discuss the significance and importance of the so many disagreements that are found within Torah. Yet, this same source in Avot also critiques disagreements that are negative, using the Korach rebellion as the prime example of this destructive machloket she’eino l’Shem Shamayim, an argument not for the sake of Heaven.2 A key distinction in whether a machloket is positive or not depends on the essential motivation for the argument. Is it motivated by a true disagreement in values, i.e. a disagreement in substantive thought? Or is the underlying motivation emotional, reflecting a desire for personal attainment through the position held? We generally value arguments in substance, between those advocating divergent positions because each side believes their position to be the correct one. We, though, have little patience for arguments driven by personal agendas. Korach’s Rebellion was such an argument.
On the surface, though, Korach’s argument seems to actually have substance. Logically, the question Korach poses in Bamidbar 16:3 and the many ones further presented in the various midrashim on the story actually do seem to be legitimate, reflecting the advocating of a value of substance. Why then is Korach’s rebellion dismissed so easily as one ultimately motivated not by a belief in these substantive values but by personal desires and agendas? One answer is obviously found in their punishment; that clearly shows that God knew their true incorrect motivations. Another may possibly be found in how they addressed Moshe; one truly interested in the ideas, in finding and acting on what is right, would not end discussions with an opposing scholar for only in such discussions and proper debates can the truth really emerge. Another key may possibly be found in understanding the true nature of the issue. Korach’s arguments were clearly logical but, is the world of Torah solely built upon principles of logic? While logic and analysis are significant factors in our attempts to know and understand Torah, the basic information revealed from Sinai is actually of the most significance. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Drash Moshe, Korach3 points out that this was the failing of Korach’s congregation. They wanted to practice Torah pursuant to their understanding. The problem is, though, that Torah is not solely based upon a person’s understanding but demands a knowledge of the facts of Revelation that are passed on through the mesora, the human transmission from Har Sinai. Korach may have been right that, on the surface, it is illogical to demand a single tzitzit thread of techelet when a whole garment is this colour but the issue is not logic but rather what God actually said.4 The question was not: who is more logical, Korach or Moshe? The question was: whose transmission as to what God said is more trustworthy, that which Moshe presents or that which Korach presents? This is what On’s wife made On recognize.
Maharal M’Prague, Chiddushei Aggadot, Sanhedrin 109b explains that there was a vast difference even in personal agendas between On and the other co-conspirators. The others wished honour and positions of stature; On simply wished Moshe not to be dominant. His wife’s argument, as such, was that there would still be someone over him in a new framework, namely Korach. On thus recognized that there was no point in continuing with the rebellion. The gemara’s use of the word talmid, student, in describing the subservience of On to either Moshe or Korach is most significant. On did not want someone mastering him. It could be postulated that On wanted the autonomy to make decisions and saw the impositions of Moshe as limiting this autonomy. It was specifically Moshe as rebbi, teacher, which bothered On. He could not just determine proper behaviour based upon his own logic and analysis; he needed the instruction of a rebbi, someone who could impart the revealed wisdom of Torah to him. In challenging Moshe, Korach was not just stating that he was more rational, more logical; Korach was stating that Moshe was not presenting the revealed word correctly and that he, Korach, could do a better job. Under either scenario, On would still be found in the same place – subject to the instruction of a rebbi. This was his wife’s challenge – either way you are still a talmid.
Could On not have still argued that Korach would be the better rebbi? Possibly, but On’s wife’s point was also that even such an argument is not l’Shem Shamayim. How does one choose a rebbi? Ultimately, it is a personal choice. We cannot be instructed as to which rebbi to choose for, even in that process, we have to choose who will teach us how to choose. Our choice of a rebbi, emerges from the self. While we all still have to make this important decision of choosing from who we will learn and, even though we should conscientiously discuss the matter with others, such an issue cannot be the basis of a machloket. This was On’s wife’s lesson to her husband.
1 The further question would be: why, then, get involved in a machloket, a disagreement, especially one that would become so vile in that the protagonists would not even talk to Moshe. See, on this last point, Torah Shelaima, Bamidbar 16: 12, note 91.
2 For a broader discussion on this distinction in disagreements, see my The Slifkin Affair Revisited, Part 3: The Nature of Machloket, at http://www.nishma.org/articles/commentary/slifkinrevisited3.html.
3 See, also, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The First Common Sense Rebellion Against Torah as presented in A Conspectus of the Public Lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik..
4 See, however, Chatam Sofer, Torat Sofer, Korach presents an explanations as to why there is value in only one string being techelet even in a garment that is totally that colour. We are to continue to find logic, i.e. attempt to understand the mitzvot, and logic and analysis is even necessary in correctly grasping God’s basic directives but it is still all based on the words of the teacher.
(c) Nishma, 2008
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