Parashat Korah

אמר רב און בן פלת אשתו הצילתו אמרה ליה מאי נפקא לך מינה אי מר רבה אנת תלמידא ואי מר רבה אנת תלמידא
Rav said: On, son of Peleth was saved by his wife. She told him, “What difference does it make to you. If he is the master, you are a student, and if he is the master, you are a student.” — Sanhedrin 109:

ומה זכות היה בידן של בני קרח שינצלו, שבשעה שהיו יושבין אצל קרח אביהן רואין את משה וכובשין את פניהן בקרקע, אמרו אם נעמוד מפני משה רבינו נוהגין בזיון באבינו וכבר נצטוינו על כבוד אב ואם, ואם לא נעמוד כבר כתיב מפני שיבה תקום, מוטב שנעמוד מפני משה רבינו אע"פ שאנו נוהגין בזיון באבינו, באותה שעה הרחישו את לבם בתשובה, עליהם אמר דוד רחש לבי דבר טוב

What merit did the Children of Korah have to warrant salvation? At the time when they were sitting with Korah their father, they saw Moshe and hid their faces in the ground. They said “If we stand up to greet Our Teacher Moshe, we will disgrace our father, and we are commanded to honor our father and mother. But if we do not stand, doesn’t the Torah say ‘Stand before the elderly?’ It is better that we stand up for Our Teacher Moshe even though it disgraces our father.” In that moment, their hearts stirred with thoughts of repentance, and on them King David wrote ‘My heart stirs over something good.’” — Yalqut Shemoni Korah

The aftermath of Korah’s rebellion did not just destroy him. It destroyed anyone he was associated with, even peripherally. Conflict is all-consuming. But the Sages tell us that four people closely associated with Korah’s rebellion managed to extricate themselves from it: Korah’s three sons and On, son of Peleth.

On is briefly mentioned at the beginning of the parasha and never mentioned again. According to the Talmud, this is because his wife talked him out of his pledge to Korah and then kept him occupied until the rebellion was over. She said why did it matter to him whether Korah’s coup was successful. If it were, Korah would supplant Moshe, but On would be the same as ever. Conceding that her words made sense, On allowed her to talk him out of making his meeting with Korah. When everything went south, he lived on because he wasn’t there.

Korah’s sons were solidly on their father’s side from the start. To them, it was a matter of family honor. Yet, the Gemara says they repented in the last second, and were saved in the end. The Gemara does not say what led to the about-face, but the Yalqut Shemoni cites a story. When Moshe attempted to approach Korah pleading for him to stand down, they faced a dilemma. On the one hand, Korah was their father, and to show any respect to his enemy would hurt his cause. On the other, the Torah commands one to honor one’s elders. To refuse to stand in Moshe’s presence would be a sin. Interestingly, the verse cited by the Yalkut is the command to stand for the elderly, not for scholars. While it is possible that the Yalkut is simply citing the first half of the verse, and that it in fact means they respected Moshe’s role as teacher, it seems fitting to me that it literally means the elderly. Moshe is an old man at eighty-one years. Eventually, they decide that even if it does bring some disgrace to their father, they still must give Moshe the dignity of his years, and so they stand.

On is a man who does not see the humanity in either side. What does it matter to him whether Moshe is his ruler or Korah? His fate is to sit out the argument, arising from his tent only when it is over. By contrast, Korah’s sons see the dignity in both sides. They love their father and want to side with him wholeheartedly, but almost in spite of themselves, they are able to see Moshe as a person who is also worthy of dignity. Family honor cannot lead to the dehumanization of the other.

Conflicts are often destructive things that consume all sides. It’s easy to avoid being caught up in them when you are an uncaring agnostic like On. But what if the conflict involves an issue you care about or involves people you are close to? In that case we must take the lesson of the Sons of Korah to heart. We cannot let arguments turn into squabbles over family honor or demonizations of the other side. Only if we can argue our side while still viewing the other as human can we save ourselves from being consumed.