Beshalach 5777

How to deal with troublemakers[1]

ואמר פרעה לבני ישראל נבכים הם בארץ סגר עליהם המדבר
And Pharaoh said[2] of the Jews, “they are lost in the land, the wilderness has closed in on them”[3]

Hashem had just granted the Jews their freedom and they had begun their exodus from Egypt. Word got back to Pharaoh that the Jews took a detour, and he thought this was to his advantage. He then described that they appear to be lost. The problem is the verse says that ואמר פרעה לבני ישראל, Pharaoh spoke to the Jewish people. Who was there to speak to? All the Jews had left! This is why Rashi[4] explains that the prefix ל in Hebrew, while usually meaning “to”, can sometimes mean “about”. The verse is then telling us that he spoke about the Jewish people, not to them. Targum “Yonasan”[5], however, takes the verse literally and says that it means “to”. Who was he speaking to? He understands that Pharaoh spoke to Dasan and Aviram, who remained in Egypt.

Who were Dasan and Aviram? They were two Jews from the tribe of Reuven. Their first explicit appearance is in the episode of the Korach rebellion[6]. At that time they, along with several others, tried to usurp Moshe’s authority[7]. Chazal teach us[8] that they made many appearances prior to this. They were the two Jews who were fighting that Moshe rebuked[9], and subsequently informed on Moshe’s killing the Egyptian to Pharaoh[10]. They were the ones who left over the mun, manna, when they weren’t supposed to[11]. They were also the ones who wanted to return to Egypt when things got tough[12]. Chazal inform us[13] that every time the Torah uses the term ניצים or ניצבים, the verse is referring to Dasan and Aviram. Needless to say, they were troublemakers throughout the Jews’ journey in the wilderness. We see from Targum “Yonasan”, however, that they didn’t immediately join the Jews in their escape from Egypt. They, for whatever reason, decided to stay behind.

However, this is highly problematic. Rashi informs us regarding the verse[14] that says the Jews left Egypt חמושים, that only 1/5th of the Jews actually made it out. The rest were all killed during the plague of darkness[15]. These were the Jews who didn’t want to leave, they preferred to stay. We see from Targum “Yonasan” that Dasan and Aviram had no intentions to leave Egypt. If so, why weren’t they killed? How did they survive? There are several possible explanations for this oddity[16].

One is that even though they were supposed to die, Hashem purposely left Dasan and Aviram alive. The purpose was so that they would act as adversaries to Moshe and Aharon[17]. With all the open miracles being witnessed daily in the wilderness, it would essentially remove the free will of the Jewish people. To keep things balanced, so that the people could still be free to make a choice about who to follow, they were kept around. While interesting, there is another approach I want to explore.

After Moshe’s initial attempt to convince Pharaoh to release the Jews, the response was to make the work even harder for them[18]. Instead of being provided straw to make bricks as was the arrangement until then, the Jews had to gather their own straw without detracting from their daily brick quota. There were Jewish taskmasters in charge of the Jews, to make sure they fulfilled their duties. When the Jews failed to meet their quota, these taskmasters volunteered to be whipped as punishment instead of their brethren[19]. Rashi says[20] that those who were whipped were rewarded by Hashem to become members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Court of law. They represented the 70 elite of the Jewish people. Following this episode, these taskmasters then took to rebuke Moshe for having made the Jews’ situation far worse[21]. The Torah uses the verb נצבים to describe this encounter. Based on what we said above, among those who complained must have been Dasan and Aviram. This means they were among the taskmasters who were rewarded with this position of honor. How could this be? They were such wicked people! They weren’t deserving of this position! The reality is that they didn’t deserve to be part of the Sanhedrin. Instead of being rewarded this position, their reward was they weren’t killed in the plague of darkness[22]. We see from here the tremendous merit that’s inherent in doing something for another Jew[23]. These wicked people didn’t deserve to be part of the Exodus, but because of their selfless act, they earned their freedom. This kindness wasn’t forgotten, and it made all the difference in the world. If we see a fellow Jew in trouble, we should remember that by helping them we cannot lose, we can only gain.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on a shiur given by Rav Zvi Zimmerman from the Skokie Yeshiva, in the year 2010

[2] The verse is really meant to be in future tense, as Hashem is informing Moshe about what Pharaoh will say when he finds out the Jews made a detour. For simplicity I left this for a footnote

[3] Exodus 14:3

[4] Ad. loc.

[5] Ad. loc. Also brought in Sechel Tov ad. loc.

[6] See parshas Korach, Numbers 16:1-17:5

[7] Ibid 16:1

[8] Nedarim 64b

[9] Exodus 2:13

[10] See Rashi to ibid 4:19

[11] Exodus 16:20

[12] Numbers 14:4 and Shemos Rabbah 1:29

[13] Nedarim loc. cit.

[14] Exodus 13:18

[15] This was so the Egyptians wouldn’t notice and think the Jews were being punished just like them (Rashi to ibid 10:21)

[16] Others besides these to check out are those of the Moshav Zekeinim (they were poor, as Rashi says to Exodus 4:19, so they were already considered dead, or only those that didn’t believe Hashem could free them died, whereas Dasan and Aviram knew He could just didn’t think He would), Sha’arei Aharon (only those who made fun of Moshe died, and as they were dying Moshe prayed that they be spared, so Hashem let Dasan and Aviram live to give Moshe trouble and show him this punishment was justified), Shemos Rabbah 14:3 (the rich, well off Jews who were never slaves were the ones who wanted to stay, Dasan and Aviram being poor weren’t in this group) and Eidus B’Yosef (Moshe told Pharaoh they were leaving for 3 days, and told the people quietly that they were leaving forever, and this private communication spread throughout, however no one told Dasan and Aviram since they were known to be informants, so they thought the Jews were only being freed for 3 days, so they felt it wasn’t worth the trouble)

[17] Rav Zimmerman thought this was in the writings of the Ramban somewhere, but couldn’t remember where

[18] Exodus 5:6-18

[19] Ibid verse 14

[20] Ad. loc.

[21] Ibid verse 20. This is how Rav Zimmerman explained the verses. The Nachalas Yaakov ad. loc. and the Maharil Diskin in the following note understand Rashi ad. loc. similarly. This however is not how I would have read the Rashi. The previous verse mentioned the taskmasters, and then says “they” encountered Moshe and Aharon. Rashi says that “they” is referring to “some from the Jews”. Seemingly he is telling us not to think the verse is referring to the taskmasters. Mizrachi ad. loc. explains why we shouldn’t think this: the taskmasters were good, decent people. Those who encountered Moshe and Aharon and rebuked them behaved inappropriately. Therefore, Rashi says it wasn’t the taskmasters, just ordinary Jews. Rashi then gives a second explanation, that it was Dasan and Aviram. Without any qualifications, Rashi sounds like he is still saying it wasn’t the taskmasters. He is just clarifying that it wasn’t unnamed troublemakers; it was people we are familiar with. However, the above sources must understand Rashi differently. Rashi is coming to address a problem: the verse sounds like it’s referring to the taskmasters, but as mentioned it can’t be. He gives two answers, either: 1) it isn’t the taskmasters, or 2) it is the taskmasters, but the reason they misbehaved is because it is Dasan and Aviram. Otherwise, why does Rashi need to bring two explanations which are essentially the same answer? He isn’t merely coming to tell us who the verse is referring to, rather solving a problem. However, the Nachalas Yaakov seems to understand that Rashi when he says the first explanation is saying it is the taskmasters. If that’s so, I don’t know why Rashi needs to comment at all. It’s also misleading to say, “some from the Jews”, if he means the taskmasters

[22] Maharil Diskin to Exodus 14:3

[23] Rav Zimmerman quoted this from the Chofetz Chaim al HaTorah, although I couldn’t find the reference