Earlier this week, we noted the surprising remark of the Rosh, in his Torah commentary (Parashat Bo), regarding Datan and Aviram – two sinful members of Benei Yisrael who, as Chazal describe, repeatedly challenged Moshe and Aharon in the period following the Exodus. The Rosh writes that although, according to the Midrash, God killed the sinners among Benei Yisrael during the plague of darkness (see Rashi, 10:22), He spared Datan and Aviram, because “lo nitya’ashu min ha-geula” – they did not despair of redemption. As sinful as they were, they were spared and earned the right to leave Egypt at the time of the Exodus due to their belief in the prospect of the nation’s redemption.
The Rosh’s comment becomes especially remarkable in light of future incidents involving these two men. The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 1:34) lists several sins in the Torah which Chazal attribute to Datan and Aviram, including the protests against Moshe which the Torah later (14:11-12) describes as having been voiced at the shores of the Yam Suf. As the people found themselves trapped against the sea by the pursuing Egyptian army, the people turned to Moshe and said, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to perish in the wilderness? What is this that you have done, by taking us from Egypt? Is this not what we told you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone and let us serve Egypt, for it is preferable for us to serve Egypt than to perish in the wilderness!’?” According to the Midrash, these harsh words were spoken specifically by Datan and Aviram. It emerges, then, that just days after the Exodus, Datan and Aviram reflected upon their earlier rejection of Moshe’s leadership and of the entire plan to leave Egypt, and insisted that Benei Yisrael should have remained in Egypt. If this was Datan and Aviram’s reaction to the crisis at the shores of the Yam Suf, we may reasonably assume that they were skeptical about the prospects of redemption all throughout. And yet, the Rosh says they were worthy of surviving the plague of darkness and leaving Egypt because they had not despaired entirely of the prospects of redemption. As skeptical as they were, they fell short of complete denial and rejection, and in this merit, they were spared.
Another relevant source is a startling passage in Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel’s Midrashic translation of the Torah, in Parashat Beshalach (14:3). The Torah there tells of God’s command to Moshe to lead Benei Yisrael towards the sea in order to mislead Pharaoh into thinking that they had lost their way. God tells Moshe that after Benei Yisrael change directions, Pharaoh will say “el Benei Yisrael” – literally, “to the Israelites” – that the newly-freed slaves are lost in the desert. Rashi explains this phrase to mean that Pharaoh will make this comment not “to” Benei Yisrael, but rather “about” Benei Yisrael. Targum Yonatan, however, explains that Pharaoh made this remark to members of Benei Yisrael who remained in Egypt and did not leave with the rest of the nation during the Exodus – namely, Datan and Aviram. These two men had remained in Egypt, presumably because they mistrusted Moshe and did not believe his prophetic promises of a glorious future in Eretz Yisrael. This comment of Targum Yonatan seems to reflect a Midrashic tradition mentioned in numerous sources that Datan and Aviram did not leave Egypt at the time of the Exodus, and decided to join the rest of Benei Yisrael only after the miracle of the splitting of the sea. (For an in-depth discussion, see Rav Pinchas Friedman’s essay on the topic. It should be noted that this Midrashic tradition clearly does not accept the position mentioned earlier that Datan and Aviram were the ones who complained to Moshe at the shores of the Yam Suf.) If so, then Datan and Aviram were so skeptical about Benei Yisrael’s redemption that they refused to join the nation at the time of the Exodus. Even as Pharaoh sent the nation out of Egypt, Datan and Aviram remained, refusing to believe that this moment marked the dawn of a new, glorious era for their people. It was only after the great miracle of the splitting of the sea that they were convinced – and even then, but temporarily – that Moshe was God’s prophet sent to deliver His nation. Nevertheless, according to the Rosh, Datan and Aviram were deemed worthy of surviving the plague of darkness “because they did not despair of redemption.” They were doubtful and mistrusting, but they did not reject the notion entirely, and this sufficed to earn them protection from the plague that God sent against the other sinners of Benei Yisrael when He struck the Egyptians with darkness.
In short, Datan and Aviram were quite clearly skeptical about Moshe’s prophecies of redemption, yet the Rosh nevertheless noted with some slight degree of admiration that they had not despaired entirely. In searching for a source of merit for which these men were spared, the Rosh, ironically, looked specifically to the area in which they were exceedingly deficient – faith and trust in the prophecy of the Exodus – and noted that they had not failed completely. Even in regard to Datan and Aviram’s greatest flaw, the Rosh found something positive to say about them.
The Rosh’s remark perhaps reminds us to avoid assessing people in simplistic, “black-and-white” terms. Not only should we be looking at people’s positive traits, rather than focusing on their negative qualities, but we should also appreciate the limits of their negative qualities. Even if a person is generally lazy, for example, there are certainly some occasions when he can be found working diligently. Even if a person is prone to anger and intolerance, it can be assumed that at times he is forgiving and indulgent. If the Rosh could appreciate the fact that Datan and Aviram did not despair entirely of the prospects of redemption, then we can certainly appreciate the positive aspects of other people’s characters even with regard to the areas in which they are most severely flawed.