This week’s Torah portion, Korach, tells of a rebellion against Moses’s leadership. The instigator was Korach, a firebrand who riled up the masses with populist rhetoric. Moses calls on God to settle the leadership dispute, and Korach and his cohorts vanish alive into a pit in the earth.
So, on one level, this is a story of a leadership struggle; however, this is also the story of two wives: the wife of Korach and the wife of one of his followers, On ben Peleth. The Midrash tells us that Korach’s wife was the classic schemer, always angling for a way for her husband to get ahead. In contrast, On ben Peleth’s wife counseled him, “You’ll still be the second dog no matter who wins, so why get involved?” In the end, her wisdom saves her husband’s life.
Parshat Korach has special significance to me because it is the parsha of my wedding. Thirty-seven years ago this weekend, my husband and I were married. Four children, many grandchildren, and countless adventures later, we are still happily wed.
During my marriage, I have sometimes acted like the virtuous wife of On ben Peleth, advising my husband to be his best self without striving for wealth or honor – but I have also been like Korach’s wife.
Early in my marriage, I mistakenly thought that status and money would bring me happiness. Like Korach’s wife, I nagged my husband to network, hobnob with important people, and seek a higher-status job. Fortunately, he was not like Korach. He did not, as many men might, succumb to my pressure.
But I was frustrated that he kept resisting what I thought was so important. Looking back, I see a lesson for myself in our wedding parsha. Had my husband heeded me, it might not have benefited either of us, just as it did not benefit Korach. The status that I thought was so important might have even been deadly for our family and our happiness.
Over time, I’ve come to appreciate what my husband knew from the get-go, and I’ve learned to encourage him to be his best self and follow his values. Now I treasure the man I actually married — a kind, reticent engineer with a sterling character – and not compare him to some fantasy of executive brilliance.
As I gained experience, I observed the people who had high-flying careers, fancy homes, and jazzy cars, and it seemed to me that their “success” did not usually translate into spending ample time with their children and each other or giving them a sense of inner satisfaction. I may have a smaller house, but there is a large amount of shalom bayit (peace in the home) within its walls. I came to realize how precious our family was, and to be grateful for it. I came to feel more like the wife of On ben Peleth and less like Korach’s wife.
How did On ben Peleth’s wife save him? On the day of the big showdown, Korach’s wife is right there urging him on to glory. On ben Peleth’s wife gets her husband drunk, puts him to bed, and then sits at the doorway of her tent with her hair uncovered, which was comparable to a woman sitting topless in her doorway today. When the rebels come to round up On ben Peleth, they are too embarrassed to enter the tent, so they pass by.
Korach and his family die an unnatural death, and On ben Peleth lives.
Today, my husband has the same steady job, holds a position of respect in the community, and continues to do chesed for countless individuals. In my eyes, he is a winner.
If I had lived in the days of Korach, I might have risked sending my family into the pit with him. Today, I’m glad to say that I’d be more likely to keep company with the wife of On ben Peleth — and prize peace, kindness, and true honor over status and wealth.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 110) says that King Solomon wrote about these two wives in Mishlei/Proverbs 14:1: “The wise woman [wife of On] builds her house; the foolish one [wife of Korach] tears it down with her own hands.”
As my husband and I enter our 38th year of marriage, I pray to be a true builder of my home, and not — in the pursuit of building status or material gain — to be a wife who tears it down.