Parshat Shmot teaches us what a Jewish leader is all about. First of all, Moshe Rabbeinu embodies the positive leader, who is willing to sacrifice himself and his freedom for the Jewish People. But in this article, we will concentrate on the actions and motives of two negative leaders in Egypt. Two leaders who always looked to advance themselves, and attempted every step of the way to prevent the redemption. They did not do this openly. On the contrary, they always portrayed themselves as people who were concerned about the interests of the Jewish People at large.
These two people are Datan and Aviram. They appear several times throughout the Torah, not always in name – sometimes it is the sages who reveal to us that they are Datan and Aviram. It is quite possible that Datan and Aviram are not specific people, but rather they are a concept – a symbol of a certain type of leader.
The first time we meet Datan and Aviram, they are in the heat of a quarrel. What were these two fighting about while their brothers were in bondage? It can be assumed that they found time to bicker about some portfolio or office. And behold, Moshe Rabbeinu appears on the scene, sees his two brothers fighting, and tries to patch things up. But Datan and Aviram, who yesterday saw Moshe Rabbeinu exhibiting leadership qualities in killing the Egyptian, both smelled competition to their positions. And so, putting their own quarrel aside for the moment, they proceed to inform on Moshe to Pharo. And all this, obviously, is done out of a “national responsibility”, for who knows what the ramifications of such a murderous act such as that of Moshe’s could be for Israel…
The second time we run into our friends (according to the sages) is at the end of Parshat Shmot, years later. Moshe by this time has “taken over the leadership”. Moshe and Aharon hold their first historic meeting with Pharo where they demand to “Let my People Go!” On their way out, they are met by a furious Datan and Aviram. They are devoured by jealousy. They, too, had once visited Pharo’s palace, though never Pharo himself. They probably had only met with the Minister of Jewish Affairs where, in classic exile tradition, they would occasionally do some groveling in order to squeeze something out of him. And so immediately they attack (with “national responsibility”) Moshe and Aharon: “The Lord look upon you, and judge: because you made us abhorrent in the eyes of Pharo and in the eyes of his servants to put a sword in their hand to slay us”. At first glance, these are words of logic and genuine concern. Stop making things worse for us! Because of your insanedemand to “let my people go” and all the rest of your wild fantasies, Pharo has increased the burden on Israel! (Even Moshe himself at this point temporarily despairs, and says to G-d: “For since I came to Pharo to speak in Your Name, he has dealt ill with Your people.”)
Let us continue following “Datan and Aviram”. In the book of Numbers, they are already working as an active “opposition”, as Midrash Shmot Raba explains: “They were the ones who left over the “Mann”, they were the ones who said (in the spy portion) ‘let us return to Egypt’, they were the ones who rebelled at the Red Sea.” And of course, they were active players in the Korach incident. In other words, whenever there was an opportunity to undermine Moshe and Aharon’s authority, they were there, in the thick of it. The highlight of their career is during the sin of the spies, where they say: “Let us appoint a chief and let us return to Egypt.” Oh, how they yearned for the good old days, when their brothers were enslaved and they were strolling in the gates of Pharo’s palace…
And so, during the Korach dispute, their stance against Moshe is much more extreme and belligerent than the stance Korach adopted. They insolently attack Moshe: “Is it a small thing that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, and you have made yourself a prince over us?” Again, pangs of yearning for Egypt and for their positions!
Throughout all the generations until today, one can see that “Datan andAviram” did not die; and an important lesson can be learned from this:Sometimes a leader may have certain accomplishments under his belt, butbecause he places his own personal welfare as the priority, he can bring the nation to tragedy. For he is ready to see his people hurt and beaten, as long as his position remains intact.