Korach: Human and Divine Exposures

Avigayil Halpern is publishing a weekly feminist dvar Torah on the parsha through her newsletter, Approaching, which is being crossposted to Jewschool. You can subscribe to Approaching here.

Korach is a particularly dramatic parsha; it brims with conflict, miracles, and strong personalities. But who do we see and what can we learn if we look beyond the few men at the center of the story? What was it like to watch their clashes, to feel the earth shake as it split open?

The Rabbis imagine the experiences of at least a few figures whose stories do not appear in the parsha itself. Chazal imagine Korach, our parsha’s eponymous rebel, as being egged on by his wife:

איתתיה דקרח אמרה ליה: חזי מאי קעביד משה! איהו הוה מלכא, לאחוה שוויה כהנא רבא, לבני אחוהי שוינהו סגני דכהנא.

Korach’s wife said to him: See what Moses is doing. He is the king, he appointed his brother High Priest, and he appointed his brother’s sons deputy priests.

(Sanhedrin 110a)

Korach’s wife, in this aggadeta, continues on by pointing out how Moshe has designed the system of tithes to unfairly benefit his family, and commanded mitzvot which are irrational. She goads Korach into his rebellion.

In contrast to Korach’s wife, the wife of On ben Pelet is imagined to be virtuous. On is listed initially in the parsha as among Korach’s faction of rebels, but his name then disappears, and he isn’t mentioned later on. What happened to him? Chazal tell us that he was saved from sin by his wife:

אמר רב: און בן פלת אשתו הצילתו. אמרה ליה: מאי נפקא לך מינה? אי מר רבה, אנת תלמידא, ואי מר רבה, אנת תלמידא! אמר לה: מאי אעביד!? הואי בעצה ואשתבעי לי בהדייהו. אמרה ליה: ידענא דכולה כנישתא קדישתא נינהו, דכתיב (במדבר טז, ג) “כי כל העדה כולם קדושים.” אמרה ליה: תוב, דאנא מצילנא לך. אשקיתיה חמרא וארויתיה ואגניתיה גואי. אותבה על בבא וסתרתה למזיה. כל דאתא חזיה הדר. אדהכי והכי אבלעו להו.

Rav says: On ben Pelet was saved by his wife. She said to him: What is the difference to you? If this Master, [Moses] is the great one, you are the student. And if this Master, [Korah], is the great one, you are the student. [On] said to her: What shall I do? I was one of those who took counsel [with Korach] and I took an oath with them [to support them]. She said to him: I know that the entire assembly is holy, as it is written: “For all the assembly is holy” (Numbers 16:3) [Rashi: meaning, they are careful about modesty]. She said to him: Sit, for I will save you. She gave him wine to drink and caused him to become drunk and laid him inside [their tent]. She sat at the entrance [of the tent] and exposed her hair Anyone who came and saw her turned back. In the meantime, [the assembly of Korah] was swallowed [into the ground].

(Sanhedrin 109b-110a)

On’s wife successfully convinces him that it will not benefit him to participate in Korach’s rebellion, but On nevertheless is sworn to participate. His wife, then, uses alcohol to put him to sleep and then sits at the entrance to their home, exposing her hair in what would have been a gesture of profound exposure. Because all of the Israelites — Team Korach included — cared about modesty norms, the rebels who came to fetch On turned away rather than approach their tent, and On slept through the rebellion undisturbed.

On’s wife makes herself unprotected and exposed in order to save her husband. She reveals her hair, a part of her body which she would normally have covered, and allows her nakedness itself to drive away those coming to endanger her husband by pulling him into their insurrection. On is protected, but On’s unnamed wife is left vulnerable for his sake.

Dr. Wendy Zierler, writing for Maharat, is critical of the assumption that On’s wife ought to be read as a feminist figure. She says:

Viewed from one angle, this Talmudic midrash presents an admirable image of an unnamed, unheralded woman who nevertheless takes control of a situation so as to save her hapless husband’s life. Viewed from another angle, however, Mrs. On’s agency and smarts become less about women’s capacity and more about the shamefulness of On, and by extension all of all those who followed Korah…

In Zierler’s understanding, On’s wife’s actions are less about her own virtues and more about On’s and the other rebels’ bad behavior. Her bravery and problem-solving highlight his deficiencies. But On’s wife has another foil in the parsha as well, which perhaps casts a different light on her actions.

When Korach and his band challenge Moshe and Aharon, Moshe responds by challenging them to an incense-based contest.

וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל־קֹרַח וְאֶל־כׇּל־עֲדָתוֹ לֵאמֹר בֹּקֶר וְיֹדַע יְהֹוָה אֶת־אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ וְאֶת־הַקָּדוֹשׁ וְהִקְרִיב אֵלָיו וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר־בּוֹ יַקְרִיב אֵלָיו׃

זֹאת עֲשׂוּ קְחוּ־לָכֶם מַחְתּוֹת קֹרַח וְכׇל־עֲדָתוֹ׃

וּתְנוּ בָהֵן  אֵשׁ וְשִׂימוּ עֲלֵיהֶן  קְטֹרֶת לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה מָחָר וְהָיָה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַר יְהֹוָה הוּא הַקָּדוֹשׁ רַב־לָכֶם בְּנֵי לֵוִי׃

Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, “Come morning, the LORD will make known who is His and who is holy, and will grant him access to Himself; He will grant access to the one He has chosen.

Do this: You, Korah and all your band, take fire pans,

and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before the LORD. Then the man whom the LORD chooses, he shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!”

(Bamidbar 16:5-7)

God, of course, does not choose Korach and his followers. But the challenge of the firepans and the incense is a form of exposing the Divine in public. Incense is typically offered inside the Mishkan, not out in the open. On Yom Kippur, it is offered by the Kohen Gadol inside the Holy of Holies itself, which R. Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman z”l associates with the womb. Here, however, God’s incense is offered outside the Mishkan, at its entrance. Just as On’s wife makes herself vulnerable by revealing her body in public to protect her beloved, God makes Godself vulnerable by exposing this normally private ritual in defense of Moshe, Aharon, and the priesthood.

Korach’s entire project is, on some level, a desire to forcibly reveal that which is covered. As a descendent of Kehat, Korach’s familial Levite role was to transport the vessels of the Mishkan. The Bnei Kehat were forbidden from seeing or touching these holy keilim, lest they die; the priests would carefully cover the vessels before the Bnei Kehat would come to lift and transport them. Korach’s demand for the priesthood therefore involves a demand to see these restricted, covered holy objects. Korach wants to peel back the tarps to see and touch the vessels that God has declared private.

After God’s revealed vulnerability in the form of the publicly-offered incense (or at least incense that is publicly prepared to be offered), there is a second form of Divine exposure and opening in the parsha. The ground opens beneath Korach, Datan and Aviram, and their families, and swallows them up. In a kind of reverse birth, the earth opens up and sucks people into it. In this image, which evokes a vagina in its opening and flexibility, God is completely in control.

Korach’s demand is fundamentally for exposure because he wants it, revealing because he says so. But per our earlier sugya from Sanhedrin, Korach is not only defeated in a dramatic, earth-shaking way. His rebellion leads to steps taken to prevent this posture from taking hold in the Israelite camp.

The parsha tells us that when Moshe heard the contention of Korach against himself and Aharon, “he fell on his face.” Masechet Sanhedrin elaborates on this — what exactly did Moshe hear?

(במדבר טז, ד) “וישמע משה ויפול על פניו.” מה שמועה שמע? אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני א”ר יונתן: שחשדוהו מאשת איש שנאמר (תהלים קו, טז) “ויקנאו למשה במחנה.” א”ר שמואל בר יצחק: מלמד שכל אחד ואחד קנא את אשתו ממשה שנאמר (שמות לג, ז) “ומשה יקח את האהל ונטה לו מחוץ למחנה.”

“And Moses heard and he fell on his face” (Numbers 16:4), what report did he hear that elicited that reaction? Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani says that Rabbi Yonatan says: That they suspected him of [adultery] with a married woman, as it is stated: “And they were jealous of Moses in the camp” (Psalms 106:16). Rabbi Shmuel bar Yitzḥak says: This teaches that each and every man had jealousy towards his wife with respect to Moses, as it is stated: “And Moses would take the tent and pitch it outside the camp,” (Exodus 33:7).

This reading imagines that the charges against Moshe that so horrify him include that he is suspected of adultery. For this reason he withdraws to outside the camp, which the Gemara bases on a verse in Shemot, to avert any possible suspicion. Although adultery is not always an abuse of power, the accusation that Moshe was sleeping with any Israelite woman save his wife, as the leader of the people, would be laden with the potential for abuse of power.

Korach attributes his own desire to forcibly reveal, to expose whoever and however he wants, to Moshe as well. But Moshe’s response, in this Gemara, is not simply to disavow this sentiment. Moshe makes concrete changes, no matter how confident he is in the falsity of the charge. The result of Korach’s rebellion, for most Israelite women, would perhaps be an increased sense of safety in the camp, a further assurance that there will be no unchosen revealing.

God exposes Godself in this parsha just as On ben Pelet’s wife is imagined to in the midrash. These are chosen exposures, but in a context of pressure, of high stakes, of perhaps few other choices. But the parsha offers us a view of a different way forward. God gets to determine the terms on which God is vulnerable, even as God sometimes chooses vulnerability. Parshat Korach can push us toward building a world in which our exposure can only happen when we want it to, when revealing ourselves is only a matter of joy and power and communion. This cannot be individual — it must be structural.

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