It seems that two different rebellions took place, and that the stories got stitched together when the Torah was formally redacted into one document.
The first rebellion is led by members of the tribe of Reuben along with Korach. Reuben was the eldest of Jacob’s sons so this faction are angry that they – descendants of the firstborn tribe – are not the leaders of the Jewish people. This rebellion is led by Korach, the Reubenite brothers Datan and Aviram, and another Reubenite named On ben Pelet.
The second rebellion is a challenge to the authority and power of the priests whose leader is Aaron. Even the Levites who hold power are angry – for within their already-privileged ranks, the family of Aaron enjoy yet higher status. This is an indirect attack on Moses, who gave his own brother the priesthood.
The first challengers to Moses’ authority are swallowed up by the Earth.
The second challengers to Aaron’s and the priests authority participate in a firepan showdown that results in the death of 250 people.
Korach – it seems – participates in both rebellions. Most likely, that explains why the Torah’s editors combined the stories into one slightly messy and inconsistent account.
So that is three out of four rebel leaders accounted for. But we never hear about On ben Pelet again. So, ask the rabbis, what happened to him? They imagine that he had a change of heart and so escaped with his life. They build a story about him based on characteristics hinted at by his name. For “On ben Pelet” means “Remorse son of Miracle.”
Rav says: On, son of Pelet, did not repent on his own; rather, his wife saved him.
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, Korach, is the great one, you are the student. Why are you involving yourself in this matter?
On said to her: What shall I do? I was one of those who took counsel and I took an oath with them that I would be with 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), and they observe the restrictions of 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 on a bed inside their tent. She sat at the entrance of the tent and exposed her hair as though she were bathing. Anyone who came and saw her stepped back.
In the meantime the assembly of Korach was swallowed into the ground, and On, son of Pelet, was spared. (BT Sanhedrin 109b-110a)
On ben Pelet’s wife points out that this isn’t his fight. It’s a political game and he will still be a little guy – whether under Moses or Korach – so why get involved? He should step away now. Dr Ohr Margalit explains:
As a woman in a patriarchal world, Ben Pelet’s wife is an expert at short circuiting hierarchy. She knows how the system works, and as soon as her husband tells her he’s become entangled in a web of political intrigue, the tables are turned, and she takes the lead. “I’ll save you!” she exclaims. She then (very symbolically) gets him drunk and puts him to bed.
On ben Pelet’s wife came up with a simple and elegant solution to save his skin, but first he had to trust her by confessing that he was in trouble.
Zahavit Shalev LBC Rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.