Rashi, in his commentary to Parashat Bo (10:22), writes – citing the Midrash – that the ninth plague that God brought upon Egypt, the plague of darkness, served not only to punish the Egyptians, but also as a way to conceal a plague that He brought upon Benei Yisrael. During the period before the Exodus, Rashi writes, “there were among Israel…wicked people and they did not wish to leave [Egypt]. They died during the three days of darkness so that the Egyptians would not see their downfall and say, ‘They, too, are being smitten, just like us.’”
The Rosh, in his Torah commentary, raises the question of why, if the evildoers among Benei Yisrael perished during the plague of darkness, we encounter sinful people later in the Torah. In particular, the Rosh notes Datan and Aviram, two prominent figures in Korach’s revolt against Moshe whom the Midrash (Shemot Rabba 1:34) identifies as the instigators of numerous challenges to Moshe’s authority. The Midrash says that Datan and Aviram were the ones who protested at the shores of the Yam Suf when Benei Yisrael found themselves trapped against the sea, who did not trust Moshe’s prophecy about the manna and left over some of their portion for the next day, and who led the initiative to return to Egypt upon hearing the frightening report of the scouts. These wicked men survived the deadly pestilence that God unleashed against the evildoers of Benei Yisrael during the period of darkness in Egypt, and the question arises as to why they were deemed worthy of exclusion from this plague.
The Rosh answers, very succinctly, that although Datan and Avram were indeed wicked, they were allowed to live “because they did not despair of redemption.” God killed those among Benei Yisrael who had despaired, and did not believe in the brighter future that awaited the nation currently languishing under Egyptian oppression. Datan and Aviram, as evil as they were, had not despaired, and were thus allowed to survive and join the rest of the nation when they left Egypt.
We might learn from the Rosh’s brief comments the vital importance of optimism and hopefulness in Torah life. Even people as sinful as Datan and Aviram, who consistently mistrusted, suspected and challenged Moshe Rabbenu, earned God’s redemption because they did not lose all hope at a time when many others did. The Rosh here teaches that when a person does not despair, if he accepts the possibility that his life and his world can change and improve, then he has the opportunity to change and improve his life. The most dangerous evil of all is cynicism borne of despair, the feeling that humankind’s ills are permanent and the world is beyond repair. We are guaranteed the promise of redemption as long as we believe in the prospect of redemption, as long as we look to the future with hope and optimism, confident that things can, and ultimately will, change of the better. We don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of God’s assistance, but we need to trust that He is able and willing to assist us, and live with positivity and enthusiasm even in trying times.