This week’s reading concerns a rebellion against Moses. One mystery surrounds the fate of On. Korah, Dathan and Abiram, are mentioned by name in the verse above, alongside On. Later, they are swallowed by the earth (Numbers 16:25-34). The next verse, after ours, mentions 250 additional rebels. Later, we are told that they were consumed by a raging fire (Numbers 16:35). But we’re not told what happened to On.
Into such a narrative lacuna, one can well expect the midrashic tradition to venture (see Numbers Rabbah 18:20). Apparently, On was saved from punishment because ultimately, he didn’t go through with his act of rebellion. This, we are told, was due to the wise actions of his wife.
These headlines are well known, but the details of the Midrash are somewhat darker. On’s wife argues that her husband stands to lose a lot, and stands to gain very little, from Korah’s rebellion.
Her opposition to the rebellion is presented, at least to him, as self-interested. Moreover, she isn’t able to talk sense into him. Instead, she gets him too drunk to leave their home. Finally, she sits immodestly dressed, with her daughter, at the entrance to their tent. On’s allies come to collect him and are so put-off by this show of immodesty, that they refrain from coming in.
These rebels, who were too upstanding to countenance immodest dress, apparently, thought of themselves as holy.
Of course, the rabbis care about our having appropriate motivation; they care about principles of righteousness, sanctity and justice. But, in their view, it is better to do the right things for the wrong reasons, than to walk around, outwardly frum, with an inflated sense of your own righteousness, as you lead a rebellion against God.