The pursuit of honor can destroy a person as we see in this week’s Parsha. Korach was a first cousin of Moshe and Aharon and also a great scholar. However, he desired honor. Moshe assigned communal positions to various members of the Tribe of Levi, but Korach was not included and resented not being selected for office. He accused Moshe of nepotism - distributing the offices unjustly to his brother Aharon and cousin Elitzafan. He incorrectly believed that Moshe did it on his own, when the facts were that Moshe only acted by the word of G-d.
So, Korach campaigned to win followers and rebel against Moshe and Aharon. He assembled a following of 250 men, leaders among the people. A few of them are identified in the Torah: Dasan, Aviram and Onn Ben Peles. Yet, later when all the rebels were punished and died, the Torah lists Korach, Dasan, Aviram and the families of the 250 men. The Torah also tells us later that the sons of Korach survived. But, there is no mention of Onn Ben Peles! What happened to him?
The Midrash explains by contrasting two women – the wife of Korach and the wife of Onn Ben Peles. Mrs. Korach inflated her husband’s ego, convinced him that he was the equal of Moshe and Aharon and inspired him with the idea to argue with them. Korach listened to his wife and destroyed himself.
In contrast, the wife of Onn Ben Peles stopped him. She told her husband, “You have nothing to gain. There is no honor in it for you! Your position will stay the same. If Moshe wins, Aharon remains the Kohein Gadol – the High Priest. If Korach wins, he gets the position.” Onn agreed but did not know how to withdraw himself from the fracas. So, she got him drunk and he fell asleep. She sat by the entrance to their tent and uncovered her head. When Korach sent messengers to bring Onn, they turned away, seeing his wife with her hair uncovered. So, Onn never returned to Korach. Mrs. Onn saved her husband from destruction.
Now, we are dealing with bright people. They also knew that the winner would either be Aharon or Korach and they would be left out. So, why did only Onn Ben Peles and his wife realize the lose-lose outcome? Why didn’t the other 250 men see the lose-lose outcome for themselves?
For Korach and his followers, it was all a matter of honor. In their minds, Korach deserved a top position and nothing was going to change their opinion. They were so invested in their own honor that they put all their energies into the rebellion and the forthcoming destruction for rebelling against G-d meant nothing to them.
It was worth it for the honor. Honor meant so much for themselves that they had to win even at the cost of their own lives . . . even at the cost of the lives of their family members. That pursuit of honor blinded otherwise brilliant people. It was a dispute based upon honor they felt they deserved.
For each of the 250 followers of Korach, losing was unacceptable. It was a slight to their honor. The issue was being second when somebody else was first. It was not having, when somebody else has. They were not satisfied with what G-d gave them or with their position that G-d assigned them. They did not consider the words of our Rabbis, “One who pursues honor, honor will flee from him.” So, not only did honor flee from them, it consumed them.