Text Based Learning

Contrasting Influences
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Thursday 19th June 2014

By Rabbi Daniel Levy, former US rabbi

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 5:20, p. 560 in the green siddur) asks: ‘What is an example of a dispute for the sake of Heaven? Hillel and Shammai, who debated and discussed the laws and interpretations of the Torah for the betterment of Judaism. What is a dispute not for the sake of Heaven? Korach and his followers’.

Korach attempted to make a mockery of Moshe and the Torah. The Midrash relates that he began by wearing a garment made totally from techeilet (a blue/green dye) and asked Moshe if the garment still required the techeilet tzitzit thread on its corners? Korach then asked if a house full of Sifrei Torah, which contain within them the very paragraphs of the mezuzah, still requires a mezuzah? Moses answered ‘yes’ to both of these questions.

The end of the story is a tragic one. Korach and his 250 followers were swallowed up in the earth. It miraculously opened and Korach, his followers and their possessions fell into the large schism and the land closed again.

What role did the wives in Korach’s camp play in all this? The influence of wives on their husbands is actually expressed at the very beginning of our sidrah. The name of a man called On ben Pelet is mentioned only once, as one of Korach’s followers, at the beginning of the sidrah. After that his name is omitted. The Sages in the Midrash were curious to know why. The Midrash explains that On ben Pelet’s wife advised him against joining forces with Korach. In contrast, Korach’s wife encouraged and influenced her husband to challenge Moshe’s and Aharon’s leadership. On ben Pelet and his family were saved from destruction but Korach and his family were not. The verse in Proverbs says about these two women: ‘every wise woman builds her house; but the foolish one tears it down with her own hands’ (Mishlei 14:1).

We see from here that whilst challah baking and candle lighting are sacred mitzvot, there is much more that a bat chayil girl needs to know! Aside from the many other mitzvot women are obligated to perform, we see from the Korach episode that women have a great role to play in influencing their families on a micro level, and indeed the destiny of the Jewish people as a whole on a macro level. Historically, Judaism has benefited from women who made bold and difficult decisions, keeping our people on the Torah-path and ensuring our destiny.

We need to endeavour to make this message understood. One way of achieving this is through the deeper study of key Biblical passages about our female ancestors, such as the relationship between Sarah and Yishmael, Miriam’s role in Moshe’s birth and Devorah’s leadership (to name just a few examples). This can help us to begin to understand the powerful and crucial role of women in Torah Judaism.