Artist: Nava Levine-Coren, Canada/Israel
This piece engages with two stories in Parshat Korah – one hidden, one revealed. The hidden story is that of a woman who plays a role in the parsha, whose story is not recorded in the text of the parsha but is told in the Talmud. The revealed story is that which is recorded in the Torah, of Korach’s rebellion and God’s response, and the underlying theme of the struggle for balance between equality and hierarchy.
I. The linocut images: The story of the wife of Ohn The underlying concept for my piece is based on Dr. Avivah Zornberg’s description of the role midrash plays in revealing the history of the women in the desert that is not recorded in the Written Torah itself. She refers to the stories of women as “the repressed narrative of the biblical text.”1 With this in mind, one of my goals in illustrating parshat Korach was to tell the story of the wife of Ohn ben Pelet, a woman who plays a role in the parsha’s central events, but is not mentioned by the text. Her story is told in the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 109b – Ohn’s name is mentioned in the very first verse of the parsha, together with Korach, Datan and Aviram – the key figures in the rebellion against Moshe. These other co-conspirators are mentioned throughout the parsha, but Ohn is not mentioned again. The Talmud explains that Ohn does not appear again because his wife saved him from taking part in the rebellion. This woman (we do not know her name) tries to talk her husband out of joining Korach. When he tells her that he wants to back out but can’t, because he has already pledged his allegiance to Korach, she tells him “sit and I will save you.” She gives him wine to drink, gets him drunk and puts him to sleep inside their tent. She then sits at the entrance of the tent and unbraids her hair. She relies on the sense of modesty of the Jewish people, and she is proven correct: anyone who approaches quickly runs away, including the rebels who are sent to collect Ohn. In this way, Ohn’s wife saves him from involvement in the rebellion, and subsequent death.
In my piece, the image of Ohn’s wife, sitting resolutely in front of her tent with her hair all around her as the men who were sent to collect her husband quickly rush away, is printed over the text of the parsha. The parsha text has been scribed in four columns, as if the sheet of parchment were a section of an actual Torah scroll. The text is partly seen and partly obscured by the image of Ohn’s wife, so that she merges with or emerges from the text itself. Although her story is not written in the text of the Torah, it is a part of the history of the women in the desert and emerges from the “white fire” – the spaces in between the letters, the gaps in the story that are filled in by midrashic and talmudic accounts.
II. The highlighted (pink) text and the circle of almond blossoms: Korach’s complaint and God’s response The pink text and the flowering wreath represent another theme in this parsha: the struggle to find a balance between equality and hierarchy, as expressed in Korach’s argument and God’s response. Korach argues “kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim,” the whole nation is holy. His argument is this: we all experienced the revelation at Sinai; why do we need a caste of priests who are holier than the rest of the nation? This seems to be an argument for equality. God responds by commanding Moshe to gather the staffs of the princes of each tribe and have them write their names on their staffs and place them in the Mishkan. God causes Aharon’s staff to blossom, proving that he is the one chosen by God to be high priest. Moshe is commanded to keep this blossoming staff in the mishkan as a constant reminder to the people that there is a hierarchy mandated by God. The blossoming staff symbolizes hierarchy and separation– the opposite of the equality Korach seemed to be arguing for.
It is not clear that Korach’s motivations were pure; many early commentators say thathe was acting out of personal jealousy. However, the Mei Hashiloach (the Rebbe of Ishbitz) quotes the gemara in Taanit in his commentary on parshat Korach, “In the future God will make a machol, a circle dance, for the righteous.” In a circle dance, everyone is equidistant from the center. This seems to imply that Korach’s vision of equality has a place– maybe only in the world to come? The Mei Hashiloach concludes that while Korach’s protest is valid, perhaps even a plea for a “world-to-come” reality, it did not emerge from an entirely pure place. He states that Moshe prayed that God grant Korach bina (insight, understanding) to “overcome his desire,” perhaps because his desire for equality was rooted in jealousy.
The words of Korach’s complaint and God’s response are written in a feminine pink because Korach’s words resonate with me as an Orthodox Jewish woman. Korach’s desire for a world of equality is one I identify with, and is a reality that many women in Judaism are striving for today: a reality with more equal access for both men and women to “the center,” whether that be Torah learning, ritual practice, communal leadership, or any other aspect of Jewish life. As Moshe Rabenu prayed that Korach would have bina, I too pray for insight and understanding regarding the roles of men and women in Judaism. When Aharon’s staff blossomed, it brought forth almond blossoms and almonds. The blossoming staff appears in here not as a linear staff, but as a wreath; a symbol of hierarchy bent into a circle, representing a reconciliation of the notions of hierarchy and equality that is the reality of the world to come. Its inclusion in the piece expresses my yearning to see this reality achieved in our world, today.
Nava Levine-Coren is an illustrator and scribe originally from New York, currently living and working Jerusalem. Nava studied illustration at the School of Visual Arts in NY, and learnedsofrut from scribe Dov Laimon in Jerusalem. Nava writes and illuminates custom ketubot,megillot, and other Jewish documents.