Yesterday, we noted the question asked by many as to why two prominent evildoers – Datan and Aviram – survived the plague of darkness which God brought upon Egypt, during which the wicked members of Benei Yisrael perished (Rashi, Shemot 10:22). Chazal (Shemot Rabba 1:34) identify Datan and Aviram as the instigators of several challenges to Moshe’s authority following the Exodus, and yet, they were somehow deemed worthy of surviving the plague which God unleashed against the other sinners among the nation.
The Maharil Diskin suggested an answer based on the comments of the Midrash Tanchuma (Vaera, 6; see Rashi to 5:20) identifying Datan and Aviram as foreman appointed to supervise the Israelite slaves. As we read in the closing verses of Parashat Shemot, Pharaoh responded to Moshe and Aharon’s initial demand that he allow Benei Yisrael to leave by intensifying their workload, forcing them to find straw with which to then produce bricks. The Torah tells that the Israelite foremen were beaten by the Egyptian overseers because the laborers failed to meet their quota of bricks, and the Midrash (cited by Rashi to Bamidbar 11:14) commends the foremen for enduring these beatings. They felt pity for the overworked laborers under their charge, and so they exposed themselves to the wrath of the Egyptian taskmasters rather than force their fellow Jews to meet unreasonable quotas. The Torah tells that the foremen approached Pharaoh to protest the harsh conditions to which the slaves were subjected, but Pharaoh rejected their plea. After leaving the palace, the foremen met Moshe and Aharon, and angrily berated them for making the slaves’ plight more severe. Chazal say that these foremen who accosted Moshe and Aharon were Datan and Aviram. It emerges, then, that although Datan and Avram were wicked men who frequently and brazenly opposed Moshe and Aharon, they were also genuinely concerned for their fellow Jews, and even endured beatings rather than enforce the unreasonable standards imposed by Pharaoh. In this merit, the Maharil Diskin explained, Datan and Aviram were spared the plague of death that befell the other sinful members of Benei Yisrael. As wicked as they were, they displayed genuine concern and compassion for the slaves under their charge, and for this they were spared.
The Maharil Diskin adds that this merit, significant as it was, did not suffice to save Datan and Aviram from punishment for their role in Korach’s revolt against Moshe and Aharon. As we know, God miraculously opened the ground underneath them, and they were buried alive. The Maharil Diskin writes that the sin of machaloket, of instigating strife and discord, is so severe that it could not be offset by the great merit of Datan and Aviram’s selflessness and compassion as foremen in Egypt. Their admirable acts of sensitivity and kindness were voided, so-to-speak, by the grievous sin they committed when they led an uprising and sowed controversy and hate among Am Yisrael. God was prepared to tolerate their wrongdoing in the merit of the compassion they had earlier showed to their fellow Jews, but He would not tolerate their efforts to stir fighting and dissent among His children.