The Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin (109b-110a) tells the famous story of On ben Pelet, who is identified in the opening verse of Parashat Korach as a participant in Korach’s uprising against Moshe and Aharon. As On’s name is never again mentioned in the narrative of the ill-fated revolt, it appears that he withdrew from the campaign. The Gemara explains that On’s wife saved her husband by giving him wine, which made him sleep. She then stood outside their tent with her hair exposed, and when Korach’s men came to bring him, they turned away, not wanting to look at his wife with her hair uncovered. The Gemara applies to On’s wife the verse in Sefer Mishlei (14:1), “Chakhmot nashim banta beitah” – “The wisdom of women has built her home.” The purpose of citing this verse in reference to On’s wife, seemingly, is to laud her for her “wisdom” in rescuing her husband from the fate suffered from Korach’s followers.
How might we explain Chazal’s implied depiction of On’s wife as “wise”? What special “wisdom” was there in foreseeing the looming catastrophe and stepping in to save her husband?
One of the unique aspects of the story of Korach, as it emerges from the Midrashim and commentaries, is the pious stature of the “bad guys.” Chazal, as Rashi (16:7) cites, describe Korach as a man with prophetic insight, who was shown through prophecy that he would beget righteous descendants. Undoubtedly, a man with prophetic capabilities was both knowledgeable and righteous – quite different from the familiar image of a villain. We might also note the Gemara’s ironic account of Korach’s men refusing to approach a woman with uncovered hair. These were people who adhered to strict levels of piety, even as they set out to depose Moshe. In fact, Netziv, in his Ha’amek Davar commentary, writes that the 250 men who demanded the right to perform the rituals assigned to the kohen gadol were driven by genuine spiritual ambition. These were righteous men who pined for the opportunity to serve the Almighty at the highest level, and this is what led them to covet the privileges of the priesthood. Indeed, Rashi (16:1), citing the Midrash, identifies thee 250 sinners as “rashei sanhedra’ot” – leading rabbinical judges. The rebels who challenged Moshe and Aharon were not the riffraff, but rather the nation’s scholarly and spiritual elite. This is likely reflected by the people’ complaint after the death of Korach’s cohorts, when they angrily turned to Moshe and Aharon and cried, “Atem hamitem et am Hashem” – “You have killed the Nation of the Lord” (17:6). The rebels were “am Hashem” – devoted servants of God, who made a tragic mistake to betray God by challenging Moshe.
The special “wisdom” of On’s wife, perhaps, is rooted in her ability to distinguish between the right and wrong camps, to recognize that as “religious” and “spiritual” Korach and his followers seemed – and, in fact, were, until they launched this campaign – they were, in fact, evil sinners who launched an assault on the system that God had commanded. She had the insight and intuition to recognize the wickedness of outwardly pious individuals who acted wrongly. When other people looked upon this group of people who conducted themselves piously and earned a reputation for greatness, they were naturally led to support them. On’s wife, however, displayed great wisdom – as well as courage – by understanding that their campaign was absolutely wrong, despite the outward piety and seeming sincerity of its leaders and participants.