“Mrs. Ohn: The Unsung Hero”

The Torah, in Numbers 16:1, records the initial steps of the rebellion: וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן יִצְהָר בֶּן קְהָת בֶּן לֵוִי, וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב, וְאוֹן בֶּן פֶּלֶת בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן . Korach, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohat, the son of Levi, separated himself with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and Ohn, son of Peleth, the offspring of Reuben.

Together with 250 men from the Children of Israel who were leaders of the assembly and men of renown, they gathered against Moses and Aaron and rebelled, saying: “All the people of Israel are holy, why do you [Moses and Aaron] exalt yourselves over the Congregation of G-d?”

The rebellion ends when the earth opens and swallows Korach and all his belongings (but not his sons, see Pinchas 5765-2005). The 250 men who had offered the forbidden incense, also met an untimely end when a heavenly fire consumed them.

When the punishment of Korach and his followers is recorded in scripture, there is no mention of Ohn the son of Peleth, who had been part of the initial rebellion. The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 109b, reports that Ohn did not die when the earth opened up, nor was he consumed by the heavenly fire. In fact, according to the Midrash, he survived because of his wise wife’s intervention.

Although Ohn had agreed to join with Korach in his rebellion, his wife convinced him that it was a no-win situation for him. Trying to prevent Korach from mixing in to a dispute that should not be his concern, Ohn’s wife argues, that Ohn has nothing to gain: “If Moses wins, you will be subservient to him, and if Korach wins, you will be subservient to him.”

Although Ohn had already given his word to Korach, his wife assured him that she would save him. First, she gave him wine to drink, and he fell asleep. Then, she immodestly uncovered her hair and stood at the opening to their tent. The messengers who came to fetch Ohn to join rebellion left because of Mrs. Ohn’s immodesty. When Ohn finally awoke, the rebellion was long over and Korach and his followers were dead.

Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz  explains that the greatness of Mrs. Ohn was that she maintained her self control, enabling her to stand firm in face of the mass hysteria that had gripped the people. Her remarkable ability to break with the prevailing mood, resulted in her husband’s rescue.

This was no little feat. In the midst of the chaos, Mrs. Ohn had the presence of mind to think rationally and present a meaningful argument to her husband. She did not put down Korach, nor did she put Moses down. Instead, she just told her husband that he had nothing to gain by supporting either side.

It is really not clear whether Mrs. Ohn’s arguments ultimately prevailed, because she eventually resorted to an alternative strategy, putting Ohn to sleep. However, Mrs. Ohn’s ability to think clearly and rationally at a time when most people were swept away by the intensity of emotion, is rather remarkable.

There is much we can learn from Mrs. Ohn, given the similar intense emotions that prevail today. Despite the great increase in formal education, and the vast number of citizens who now have secondary, tertiary and graduate educations, as well as the proliferation of immense amounts of information that is available to everybody through newspapers and media, few of us today have the ability or the inclination to sit down in times of crisis and think things out calmly, collectively and rationally. Ours is a world that has been seized by a form of “mass hysteria,” that has gripped not only our country, but, apparently, the entire world.

We see today, almost on a daily basis, numerous cases of people who are simply unable to control themselves, who quickly “lose it.” Fighting, which often ends in violence and tragedy, regularly breaks out over parking spaces and seats on the subway. The number of overdoses due to drugs and pain killers, has been rising dramatically because of out of control use.

Clearly, while much of the explosive increase in the number of cases of financial fraud can be attributed to wanton greed, in certain instances it is not due to scheming and venality. Often, people who make serious business miscalculations, find themselves feeling trapped, with no way to escape except by “cooking the books.” The frequent occurrences of group violence among young people are also often not premeditated. Kids go out to have a little fun, lose control, and wind up hurting others, or worse.

Ironically, this out-of-control “crowd mentality” can work both ways. The same passions that may be used to hurt others, can be put to use to help others. The “mob mentality” can actually be used to save others. Thank G-d, we see that in practice every day. The incredible proliferation of gemachs, free aid societies, where people work together to collect wedding dresses and baby furniture, volunteer to visit the sick and shop for the elderly and the infirm. There are entire communities that come together and form societies in which evil spirits are redirected and transformed into good deeds.

This double-edged sword, the human beings’ ability to do both good and bad, is pithily expressed in the statement found in Ethics of our Fathers (4:2) attributed to Ben Azai, מִּצְוָה גּוֹרֶרֶת מִצְוָה, וַעֲבֵרָה גוֹרֶרֶת עֲבֵרָה , One good deed promotes other good deeds, while one evil deed promotes more evil deeds. Similarly, Rashi, citing the Midrash Rabbah on Numbers 3:29 states, אוֹי לָרָשָׁע אוֹי לִשְׁכֵנוֹ , Woe to the evil person, woe to his neighbor.

We all need to be able to stop, from time to time, to take long hard looks at the larger picture to see where we fit in, and to recognize how insignificant we each are in relation to the broad scheme of things. Yet, by grouping together with other good people, we can together make a huge difference. We can train and prepare ourselves for those intense and unexpected moments, so we will be equipped to make the proper decisions for life and death, for good and evil.

These decisions will benefit not only ourselves, our friends and our families, but the entire global environment–the world.

Remember that Mrs. Ohn is a paradigm for each one of us. Keep your cool. Think before you act. G-d bless Mrs. Ohn.

May you be blessed.