This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H & my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H & in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmother Channah Freidel Bas Sarah
-My great aunt Rivkah Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aviva Malka Bas Leah
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were recently taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן יִצְהָר בֶּן קְהָת בֶּן לֵוִי וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב וְאוֹן בֶּן פֶּלֶת בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן
וַיִּשְׁלַח משֶׁה לִקְרֹא לְדָתָן וְלַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֹא נַעֲלֶה
[16:1-12] “And Korach the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehas, the son of Levi took; and Dasan and Aviram the sons of Eliav, and On Ben Peles, sons of Reuvein… And Moshe sent to call for Dasan and to Aviram the sons of Eliav, and they said, ‘We shall not up!’”
As there is an overwhelming amount of action and tumult surrounding the scene of Korach and his assembly’s infamous confrontation with Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohein [B’Midbar 16]—from the rebellion, to the fire-pan challenge, to the figuratively and literally groundbreaking deaths of Korach and his assembly, it’s quite easy to lose track of some of the finer points underlying the entire event; what exactly each person in Korach’s assembly wants in this rebellion, who is jealous of whom, etc. One has to look closely to notice the nuances in everyone’s words and read a little bit between the lines to figure out what everyone’s intention is.
However, there is one glaring factor in this story, an awkward and apparently missing link. The elephant in the room is the only individual listed by name in Korach’s assembly who is mentioned just once at the beginning of the rebellion and is never seen or heard from again in this narrative, or in the rest of Tanach for that matter. That individual is On Ben Peles. There were over two hundred esteemed princes in Korach’s assembly, but only three individuals are enumerated with him by name in the opening of this Sidrah, each of whom are descendants of Reuvein; first the menacing duo of Dasan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and then this On Ben Peles.
Dasan and Aviram might not be the most important players in the story, but they’re crucial and very much on the scene. They’re practically Korach’s loud campaign managers against Moshe, or better yet, Korach’s crooked media. They would publically badmouth Moshe at every cost, making corrupt and provocative claims against him. The Torah says that they disparaged Moshe for taking them out of the “land flowing with milk and honey” [16:13] repulsively describing Egypt, their house of bondage, with the very idiom by which G-d Himself has praised the Promised Land of Israel. They’re shameless individuals whose agenda is painfully clear and whose presence is felt throughout the story. As a result of their efforts in this campaign, when Korach descends to his doom, Dasan and Aviram are there beside him as well. Moreover, in practically every subsequent reference to Korach in later Sidros after his death, Korach’s name is accompanied by the mention of Dasan and Aviram’s as well.
But, the burning question is: What about On Ben Peles? What is his story? What is his role in our story? What was he in it for? What happened to him in the end? One can only imagine. The Torah does not say. We neither hear from him, nor are we told what happens to him. Perhaps he was just a quieter, more aloof individual. That’s strange though because he seems to be a part of a loud and rebellious mob, campaigning against Moshe and Aharon. Moreover, he’s mentioned here in the top three! Yet, at no point is he even addressed in this whole event. Why not? Is it because what happened to him is not so important? In that case, why mention his name at all?! If On Ben Peles was so worth mentioning, why not tell us what happened to him?
It happens to be that the Gemara in Sanhedrin [109B] does provide a story to fill in the blanks, explaining what happened to On Ben Peles during the rebellion. Apparently, he some conversation with his wife, and she prevented him from going to the rebellion. It does help explain what (might’ve) happened, but it does not seem to completely explain why the Torah bothered to mention him, but not tell us what happened to him. It doesn’t explain why the Torah bothered to awkwardly display On Ben Peles so conspicuously, and yet, make him so seemingly absent in the story. On Ben Peles is there, but he’s not there. He’s sitting at the dais, but he’s apparently silent.
Again, looking at the narrative, one will notice that the even Dasan and Aviram who are not central to the story are in the conversation which primarily focuses on the role of the Levi’im, a completely different tribe. It’s strange, at first glance, that Dasan and Aviram are even present, but Moshe engages in discussion with them too [16:12-14]. He speaks to them, but he says nothing to On Ben Peles. Why not?
Now, before we could even attempt to understand why On Ben Peles is not addressed, let’s understand why those who were addressed needed to be addressed.
As far as Korach and the recruited Levi’im were concerned, it made sense. These men were overtly competing for the Kehunah (Priesthood) against Aharon, and so Moshe addressed them on this issue. But the Kehunah is not so relevant to the B’nei Reuvein. And yet, Dasan and Aviram are front and center with Korach. The Torah tells us that Moshe [16:12] sends for Dasan and Aviram, to which they lash out at him. Why did Moshe “send” for them? Rashi there [based on Tanchuma 10] explains that Moshe was trying to reason with them and make peace with them. Now, we don’t see that Moshe attempted to appease Korach and his Levi’im this way, because, as per the conditions of the rebellion, he knew well that they wanted something specific from him—the Kehunah. For this reason, when addressing Korach and the Levi’im, Moshe does not appease, but he challenges them, both verbally and in the form of a trial to determine the fitting bearer of the Kehunah, whether Korach, any of his Levi’im, or the current titleholder, Moshe’s brother Aharon.
But, what about the B’nei Reuvein? What is in it for them? Essentially nothing! Moshe was likely aware of this fact and therefore attempted to snap them back to reality, and restore some kind of peace.
If all of this is the case, one might ask why are Dasan and Aviram even here to begin with? It’s true they have nothing practical to gain here. We have no indication that Korach was going to provide them food or bring them back to Egypt! We have no indication that Korach would’ve succeeded. Apparently, they’re just upset and they’re taking it out on Moshe. Whether they were fed up on their own or whether they were corrupted by Korach, Dasan and Aviram are really just on a bandwagon, granted, with no real gain. The proof is their irrelevant response about Moshe having brought them up from the “wonderful” Egypt. That argument has little to do with who should be the Kohein. It’s a lot more about how they assume that Moshe’s an insufficient leader. And once they’ve finished their attacks on Moshe, it was clear that they had been caught up and had chosen a side.
Now, if there would be any point in this story where it would have been appropriate for On Ben Peles to have been mentioned, it would have been right here when Moshe was talking to the B’nei Reuvein. He calls for Dasan and Aviram. They argue with him, and that’s about it. Then, a little bit later, the ground opens up and swallows Korach, Dasan, Aviram and their families alive.
Where was On Ben Peles at this time? If Moshe didn’t address him too when he was talking to Dasan and Aviram, it seems that he wasn’t really around or worthy to be addressed. Dasan and Aviram were apparently making a ruckus. On Ben Peles was not. So, what was his role and fate in this story? Just give me the Pashut P’shat (simple reading)! Did he also die with Korach’s assembly and descend into the earth? The Torah doesn’t say. Did he turn his back on Korach’s campaign entirely and somehow survive? Was he convinced that Moshe really was right? Did he listen to reason and leave Korach’s side? Maybe, but if he would have, wouldn’t the Torah have told us about such heroism and brazenness? But to assume that he died with all the others is also difficult because the Torah doesn’t say that that happened either. Was On Ben Peles a villain, or was he a hero?
Perhaps the real answer is that he was neither. It must be that whatever On Ben Peles did, it was quiet, not out in the open. Evidently, he did nothing that was worth mentioning. Perhaps, On Ben Peles, although somehow caught up in Korach’s campaign, had come to his sense and realized that, indeed, as a Ben Reuvein, there really would be nothing to gain. Perhaps he realized that his brethren, Dasan and Aviram were on a rickety bandwagon where there would be high risk and low reward. So, On Ben Peles must’ve slipped away.
In fact, the Gemara which features the behind-the-scenes story of On Ben Peles does seem to conclude this way [Sanhedrin 109B]. What exactly happened in this story?
The Gemara records a conversation between On Ben Peles and his wife after On Ben Peles joined Korach’s revolt. Whatever her intentions were, his wife argues with him from, not an ethical standpoint, but logical standpoint. She tells him that as he has nothing to gain here, because whoever would be in charge at the end of this rebellion, whether Moshe Rabbeinu or Korach, On Ben Peles would remain as a “student” or an “apprentice” at best, so what would he gain? Indeed, he is a son of Reuvein and not a Levi like Korach, so what benefit is there for him? Why take such risk?
Indeed, as the story goes, On Ben Peles apparently concedes to the argument, but he was torn because he had already sworn himself in when conspiring with Korach. He couldn’t figure out what to do. So, his wife gets him intoxicated, puts him to bed, and uncovers her hair at the entrance of her home so that the apparently “religious” men of Korach’s assembly would not enter to find him (indeed, although obviously corrupt, Korach and his people maintained their “religious” observance, a fascinating discussion in its own right). As a result, On Ben Peles misses the campaign and his life was saved.
Now, what kind of picture have Chazzal painted of On Ben Peles? Where did this interesting filler story come from?
So, is On Ben Peles depicted a hero? From this account, he certainly is not. He’s a man who is lucky to be alive, that’s for sure. But what else have Chazzal told us about On Ben Peles? This account presents On Ben Peles as a passive individual. What can be more passive than allowing another person to make a decision for you, intoxicate you and confine you to your bed to keep you from getting hurt? Without his own ambition, On Ben Peles goes where he is led.
But, where did Chazzal get this picture from? If one thinks about it, they’ve extrapolated it from the vague presentation of him depicted in the Torah! Evidently, his silence is part of what the Torah intended to display about him.
Let’s just look at this man as we’ve been portraying him; On Ben Peles is caught up in Korach’s riot, one of the top three officials, but he’s apparently not such a fanatic. At the same time, he’s apparently not so oppositional either. On Ben Peles really just seems to be an unambitious yes-man. His immediate concern is not about the ethics of the matter or even the the potential threat peoples’ lives—his own life for that matter. He is concerned that he had already sworn to Korach to be on his side. He’s not so enthusiastic about it like Dasan and Aviram are, and he doesn’t have much to gain from it like Korach and the Levi’im do—he can admit that, but he’s somehow there, in the mess. The worst part is that On Ben Peles did not have the willpower or courage to own up (pun intended) and either do or even say something about the situation. He did not take action, but rather allowed himself to be controlled. He would’ve walked off a cliff, or at least into the abyss with Korach, Dasan and Aviram, if that’s where he was led.
With this presentation of On Ben Peles as the Torah seems to have presented it, Chazzal understood further that it would have taken someone else to grab the reins and control On Ben Peles—his own wife—to basically navigate him away from danger and to get him out of harm’s way. He’s basically the same On Ben Peles he was before, just now, someone else was controlling him. What’s evident is that On Ben Peles could not bring himself to safety on his own.
It is for this reason that Chazzal, in the same Gemara, have interpreted his name “On Ben Peles” to mean “anguish the son of wonders.” His anguish resides in the fact that he now has to mourn and repent for being a part of the chaotic and profane rebellion and not having the courage to back out on his own. And the wonder that was done for him, Chazzal say, was that his wife saved him. Now, what kind of wonder was that? She merely put him to sleep. That’s not a wonder. The true wonder though, is that On Ben Peles, evidently, didn’t deserve to be saved; he listened to a logical argument, not even an ethical one—and he didn’t even take his course of actions to save himself after agreeing, in theory, to the argument. He felt stuck in the hype, and was afraid of breaking his swear to be there for Korach even though he knew it was wrong. He couldn’t own up to his responsibilities.
Now, if On Ben Peles proved to be such a passive and aloof player who made no difference to the larger story, neither in action nor in simple speech, why was he even worth mentioning altogether?
It could be that the Torah is intimating that he, with action or simple speech, might’ve in fact made a major difference in the larger scheme of Korach’s rebellion. As far as the Gemara’s account is concerned, On Ben Peles seemed to at least have realized—at some point—that taking part in the rebellion would not be worth it in the long run. He was a Ben Reuvein after all. We’ve already seen that he did not muster up the strength to fight for what he might’ve even believed in. He clearly wasn’t thinking matters through himself. He agreed, after hearing his wife out, that logically, it wasn’t a good idea. But perhaps, just maybe, if he had been thinking and acting for himself throughout, he might’ve looked at the whole campaign from an ethical perspective and would have been completely opposed this rebellion entirely! Perhaps he would’ve realized that Moshe was right all along. He was lucky to get out alive himself, but who knows? Maybe, if he, an apparently esteemed member of the campaign, would’ve spoken up, although it’s not likely that he would’ve convinced the mastermind Korach to back out, he could’ve at least saved his own brethren from dying in the pit of destruction too.
And yet, we see that On Ben Peles did not own up to those responsibilities, not for himself, but for his brothers that were in danger. Indeed, we have seen this kind of failure before. As a descendant of Reuvein, On Ben Peles would follow in the path of his ancestor Reuvein who intended—in theory—to save Yosef from the murderous threats of the other brothers, but was afraid to completely oppose his brothers’ rebellious actions [Bereishis 36]. Reuvein had the opportunity to make a suggestion to his brothers, and at first, they were willing to listen to him. Had he stood up firmly, Yosef would not have been sold. Instead of owning up to his morals and telling the brothers that this attempt to “overthrow” Yosef was completely wrong—instead of outright saving his brother, he catered to them and instructed them to leave him in a pit. Although he had good intentions, he didn’t truly own up to his responsibilities. He had thoughts and even plans of saving Yosef from the pit, but he left the scene and it was too late by the time he returned. His thoughts could never translate to action. His failure to truly speak his mind at the moment his brothers’ needed to hear him out is what ultimately allowed the brothers to subsequently sell Yosef away. The opportunity was lost and a brother was never retrieved from the pit and brought back from his father.
On Ben Peles had the unique opportunity to stand alongside Korach, apparently, as one of his main advisors. He quietly catered to Korach even as it became apparent that maybe, Korach’s plans were not beneficial, perhaps not moral. It seems as though On Ben Peles didn’t need to be there and have any honorable mention at all, but what if he would have been more active and said something? If On Ben Peles had stood up to Korach, perhaps advised him against this rebellion or said something, even if Korach was so absorbed in his personal ambitions that he would not have been convinced otherwise, perhaps there would have been others that would’ve also given into the light of truth. Perhaps some of his brethren could have been saved. If On Ben Peles agreed with his wife that it would not be worth it to go through with the rebellion and that there would be nothing to gain from doing it, the same would apply to his fellow B’nei Reuvein, Dasan and Aviram, wouldn’t it? But, as with Reuvein, On Ben Peles left his brothers at the “scene of the crime” and they would descend to the pit alive while he was gone.
We don’t always know what could have been or what will be. But we’ve all, at some point, been present at the “scene of the crime.” If we’re there, we could make a difference and we do bear a deal of responsibility if we do not. No matter how prominent we may be, no matter how discreet, each of us individually has a voice and a responsibility to act and to say something when matters do not look right. We should not merely hope that things work out. We should not let ourselves be controlled by the heat of the situation. We should not have to sustain perpetual, spiritual anguish, wondering what might have been if we had acted on our own. We should not sit idly by while our brethren fall to their doom. We have to be proactive, speak up, and thereby own up to our responsibilities.
May we all be Zocheh to understand the difference we can make in any situation, proactively think matters through, own up to our responsibilities—both to ourselves and to our brethren, and Hashem should aid us in the salvation process with the coming of the Geulah in the days of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂