Countering the Cunningness

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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            Our parsha begins by listing the main protagonists in a rebellion against the leadership of Moshe Rabbenu. First is the name of the instigator, Korach ben Yitzhar. His name is followed by the names of three other leaders of the rebellion, Dathan and Avirom, the sons of Eliav, and Ohn ben Peles of the tribe of Reuven. However, as the narrative continues, Ohn ben Peles is no longer mentioned and seems to have disappeared. What has happened to him that he no longer participates in this insurrection?

A well known Medrash begins to clarify this mystery. Ohn’s wife, we’ll call her Mrs. Peles, asked him what he would gain by joining in the rebellion. Now Moshe led Bnei Yisroel and Ohn was a follower. If Korach succeeded, Korach would lead, but Ohn would still be a follower, albeit under a different leader. Ohn understood that he had nothing to gain, but asked how he could effectively separate himself from the group. Mrs. Peles devised a plan. She gave her husband wine until he became drunk and fell asleep. Then she placed herself at the entrance of their tent. When Korach and his multitude came to get Ohn, they saw Mrs. Peles at the tent’s entrance combing her hair. They came no further, and Ohn and his family were saved. (I always marvel at the sense of tzniut and propriety these men demonstrated despite their misguided rebellion to Moshe’s leadership c.k.s.) It is because of the insight and tactics of Mrs. Peles that our Sages say, “The wisdom of a woman has established a house…”

Now we are perhaps left with an even more puzzling question. If Ohn did not remain part of the rebellion, why mention his name at all? Rabbi Druck in Aish Tomid begins our discussion by suggesting that the names of these insurgents allude to their roles. Dothan implies that he transgressed on the dath/religion of Hashem, while Aviram prevented himself from coming back and doing teshuvah. The name Ohn ben Peles offers similar allusions. Ohn suggests that he sat in aninut/suffering for the rest of his life as atonement for his part in the insurrection. He was a ben Peles, for whom pele/wonders would be performed for the rest of his life. And while all three of Korach’s henchmen were from the same tribe, the name of the tribe of Reuven appears only at the end of the three names, immediately after the name of Ohn, because he saw/ra’ah that their approach was incorrect.

The question remains, then why mention him at all? Our tradition teaches that while we are rewarded for thoughts and intentions to do mitzvoth, we are not punished for thoughts and intentions of sinning unless we carry them out. The Gemarrah cites only one exception to this rule, thoughts of apikorsut/heresy, a denial of God Himself. Arguing against one’s Rebbe falls into a similar category. (This is not the same as having a dialogue to try to understand one’s Rebbe.) That the Gemarrah singles out this one thought as meriting punishment indicates the seriousness of heresy and of rebellion against Torah authorities.

The Shemen Hatov  gives us an additional insight about Ohn ben Peles. Although Ohn did teshuvah for aligning with Korach, his teshuvah was incomplete as he did not resolve to refrain from such activity in the future. In contrast, the sons of Korach did complete teshuvah and sang praises to Hashem, praises that have become part of the Tehillim compendium.

Ohn ben Peles does not stand as a solitary figure, but as a prototype for all of us who can fall prey to the lures of the yetzer horo,   Ohn/where finds himself in a constant struggle, but he is also a ben Peles, a being with a higher and wondrous self. Yet he fell prey to the yetzer horo. His wife was his ezer kinegdo, the reflection of his better half. She understood the focus of the yetzer horo and used that point as the basis for her argument rather than pure logic, for the yetzer horo uses many tools, often emotional and psychological rather than logical.

What argument was it that Korach used to gain 250 followers? The Sifsei Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Friedlander notes that Korach used the power of derision and mockery to attract supporters. By telling a hypothetical story of a poor widow who was left indigent because whatever she tried, she was forced to give so many gifts to the priests, Korach mocked the fundamentals of Torah, implying that Moshe’s teaching were flawed at best and self serving at worst. What a foolish religion this must be, he insinuated. The Ramchal observes that when people observe mocking behavior, they generally stop thinking clearly and join in the derisive outlook.

How did Mrs. Peles counter this tendency? She didn’t argue logically with her husband and try to point out how faithful Moshe was and how Hashem spoke to him. She used the yetzer horo’s own tools. The lure of honor that propelled Korach would not affect Ohn no matter who the leader was. Then she made Ohn drunk, a condition that would parallel that lack of logical thought mockery had created. Cynicism and mockery prevent growth, just as a drunken stupor followed by sleep prevent growth. Therefore our Sages tell us not to dwell in a place of mockers and scoffers, for that environment creates a negative impact, reminds us Rabbi Dessler.

Mockery and cynicism are the hallmarks of Amalek, writes Rabbi Frand, and constitute Amalek’s major weapons against Bnei Yisroel. Mockery and cynicism have no constructive purpose, serving only to destroy all that is sacred. Rav Hutner notes that the battle lines are drawn between koach hahillul of Bnei Yisroel and koach hachilllul of Amalek, between the power of reverence and the power sacrilege.

Arrogance and egotism tear down other people and what they represent, continues Rabbi Frand. Cynicism is its most effective tool. Each of us must remain on guard, for in reality, there’s a little of Amalek in each of us. When we fall into the trap of the yetzer horo, when our impulses and our desires overtake us, it is hard to extricate ourselves from them.

As Rabbi Elazar states in Pirkei Avot, envy is one of three things that remove one from this world. How? Envy, although it produces no benefit to the oneself and no loss to the person envied, is so all consuming that it prevents one from appreciating what he himself possesses. This was the problem with Korach, notes Rabbi Segal in Inspiration and Insight. Korach was so consumed with jealousy of Moshe and Aharon that he refused to recognize his own exalted position in Hashem’s service.

Someone in that state of desire loses sight of reality.  The Midrash Tanchum presents a parable to explain the situation. A son brings his alcoholic father to witness a drunkard  wallowing in the street. He hopes her son will realize that he himself can come to that state. However, instead of recoiling and seeing himself in that position, all the alcoholic wants to know is where the drunken wallow got his booze so that he can get some of the same quality booze to enjoy himself. It takes tremendous wisdom to get someone in that state of mind back to reality.

This was the wisdom of Ohn’s wife, continues Rabbi Ezrachi. She got Ohn to sleep, and when he woke up, he would see things with greater clarity. Most of us are fortunate enough to have someone in our lives who can bring us back to reality, but we also have the power of countering the power of the yetzer horo within ourselves. Speak the language of the yetzer horo as Mrs. Ohn did, writes Rabbi Nevenzahl. Since Korach was using people’s desire for honor as his enlistment tool, she pointed out that Ohn would not get additional honor. One must know what argument to present at the current moment that will create the momentum for change. Yaakov Avinu understood this dynamic, continues Rabbi Nevenzahl. After Hashem appeared to Yaakov in a dream and told him it was time to leave Lavan’s house, Yaakov needed to convince his wives that it was time to go. He didn’t start the conversation with Hashem’s message. He began with a personal observation that Rachel and Leah could relate to, the deviousness and deceptiveness of Lavan. Only then did Yaakov reveal Hashem had told him it was time to go.

Similarly, when we find ourselves in a state of inertia when we need to act or do a mitzvah, we can motivate ourselves by re-framing to focus on the positive aspect of our action, whether it’s our love of coffee to help us get up in the morning, to the smile we’ll get from someone we help, to the benefit we always get from praying to Hashem.

The Manchester Rav suggests that perhaps Ohn himself was afflicted with a similar envy that blinded him to the illogic of Korach’s persuasion. Ohn’s wife, however was not so afflicted and could see the obvious flaws in Korach’s argument. If Korach’s intentions were as pure as he claimed they were, he would not have aligned himself with wicked people like Dothan and Aviram whose evil dated back forty years when they reported to Pharaoh that Moshe had killed the Egyptian taskmaster, forcing Moshe into exile. Mrs. Peles, by putting Ohn to sleep, writes Rabbi Shrage Grosbard, gave him the opportunity to stop, breathe, and think things through properly.

There are so many things that distract us in this world, alienating us from serenity and calm thought. It’s a daily challenge to remain grounded and centered in the chaos that bombards our lives. To overcome the yetzer horo, we must turn off the distractions, be honest with ourselves and admit that we are not calm. Rabbi Itamar Schwartz presents an analogy. Imagine you are carrying a glass filled to the brim with water. If your hand shakes or is bumped, the water will spill from the cup. If you walk slowly and carefully, focusing on the cup of water instead of on the distractions, the water will remain safely in the cup. Similarly, we must also remain calm and steady as we navigate our lives. We must retain the serenity and integrity of our souls. How do I respond to outside pressures? Do outside pressures and challenges cause me to shake the cup, or do I stay focused on my inner truth? Mrs. Peles stayed focused on the truth and could recognize the real motivation behind Korach’s challenge.

We can always identify a best friend with whom we do everything and from whom we are inseparable. However, although the yetzer hora is always with us, we still have trouble identifying it, writes Rabbi Beyfus in Yalkut Lekach Tov, we can’t pinpoint “what devil made me do this.”

Rabbi Wachtfogel elaborates on this idea. Mrs. Peles showed Ohn that he was exactly where Hashem wanted him to be, regardless of who was the leader. If we know who we are and recognize our place in the world, we will not easily become ensnared in the traps of the yetzer horo. We will be able to face the challenge and declare, “That’s not who I am. That does not match my true character.”

We all have the Pelaot, the wondrous, higher self. We pray that Hashem give us insight into our true selves so that we will not be removed from this true world through the lures of honor, desire and lust. We pray for the wisdom of the wife of Ohn ben Peles to keep us focused on our eternal inner truth.

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