Our rabbis have a penchant for trying to identify unnamed Biblical personalities (like the refugee who informed Abraham of his nephew’s capture in battle, Genesis 14:13) or fleshing out the details of characters that are mentioned only in passing (like Hur, in Exodus 17:12 and 24:14). An extreme example of the latter is On, the son of Pelet, who is mentioned only once in Scripture as one of the co-conspirators in Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 38:1). Curiously, the other conspirators swallowed up by the earth are mentioned by name while On is absent from the list. This omission led the Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b) to conclude that On dropped out of the rebellion and therefore was not punished with the others.
According to the rabbis, On was saved by his wife through two strategies. First, she tried to convince him of the futility of joining the rebellion. After all, she argued, whether or not Moses is vindicated of Korah succeeds, On will never be the leader. But this reasoning could not overcome On’s sense of loyalty to the other conspirators with whom he made common cause. So she put a second strategy into operation. She plied him with wine and put him to bed and refused to let anyone disturb him in the privacy of their tent.
To the rabbis of the Talmud, On’s wife was heroic. She intervened and saved her husband’s life. To Rabbi David Levine, a contemporary Conservative rabbi in Israel, the picture is not so clear. On’s wife counseled her husband that it is better not to get involved, to operate only out of a sense of self-interest and to pretend to be busy rather than support a cause. By today’s standards, these traits are not heroic but cowardly.
The heroic woman of today is not one who counsels evasion of responsibility – even self-imposed responsibility – but its acceptance, not to ignore issues of importance but to confront them. To be sure, the heroic woman of today is protective of her family and generous in her love, but she also encourages the members of her family to live nobly, to grow spiritually, and to live Jewish lives proudly. The heroic woman of today is not motivated by or endorses self-interest but by the larger interests of society. It is a different picture than the one painted by the rabbis of the rabbis of the Talmud. But if her counsel was misplaced, On would have met his doom. And thus the textual problem remains.