Ekev: Datan and Aviram, Rebels Against God and Moses, Make Their Case from Hell
By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
“And you shall know this day…what He did to Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliav ben Reuven, when the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them, along with their families, their tents, and everything on which their feet trod, in the midst of all Israel.” –Deut. 11:2-6
Scene: Sheol, the Torah version of Hell. No demons or pitchforks; no lakes of fire or forgetfulness. Rather, the Spirits of the Dead flit about silently—unless they are asked to speak. Datan and Aviram, the enemies of Moses, come forward to give their testimony.
Datan: My brother Aviram and I deeply appreciate the opportunity to tell our side of the story—that is, our so-called “rebellion” against Moses and God. Since the earth opened and swallowed us up, it has been—how long, Brother Aviram?
Aviram: Millennia. Ever since our misnamed “rebellion” took place—and, echoing my brother, I likewise appreciate the chance to set the record straight, in memory of our children, wives, and households.
Datan: Yes. Well. Let me see if I can recall: it’s not easy, being a bodiless, mindless spirit flitting about down here in Sheol, keeping our distance from that noisy Levite, Korach. As for our “rebellion,” as Moses’s Torah calls it—I protest that it was a simple misunderstanding. Nothing more.
A: I will begin, Brother, if you please.
D: Do, please, Brother. And note that we are polite and soft-spoken, down here in Sheol. We are hardly the scuffling, noisy rebels that you read in that Scroll of Moses. Why did he cadge all the fame, and we not?
A: Ahem. That day of our—misunderstanding—was very hot, and—
D: Don’t you feel, Brother, that you ought to begin earlier, in Egypt, at our first meeting with Moses, back when he was still nothing more than an Egyptian princeling?
A: If you choose, I will begin there. Egypt was—not a bad place for us Israelites, actually. True, the work was hard, and brick-making with mud and straw hardly a pleasant task, but we got along. Indeed, Datan and I were both about to attain a taskmaster’s job. After I informed on some of my Hebrew workmates who were slacking off, the Egyptian Captain of Taskmasters was grateful for another pair of eyes and ears to keep watch on those lazy Hebrews, I can tell you!
D: I used to lord it over my Hebrew inferiors, taking care to show my ability to bossing them around, hurrying them up, shouting, “Faster! Faster!”—
A: And did you not whip a slave or two—I mean, fellow Hebrews—on occasion?
D: Certainly. That was an accepted part of our duties. The Egyptian masters even allowed us to sip sugared water from the taskmasters’ jug, standing just outside the shady spot under the palms, where the taskmasters would gather for a break. Of course, we could not place our lips on that same spout as they. Still, that was, indeed, a privilege. I can still taste that sugar on my tongue, in the middle of a hot workday—
A: So we were slowly moving up the pecking order—again, not a bad situation for two Reuven-tribesmen to be in, considering our Grandfather Reuven’s failure to attain his firstborn birthright from Jacob. He ought to have been the leading tribe!
D: Instead, those upstart Levites, Moses and his oh-so-religious brother Aaron, were hogging the lion’s share of the glory!
A: But you know, we Reuvenites are hot-tempered, and even brothers can disagree. One day, Datan and I were arguing over who should get to carry some fresh, juicy gossip to the Captain. Some Levite slaves were planning a rebellion, it seems—that Korach had appointed himself ringleader of a labor strike, and the lot of them were planning to refuse to make any more bricks, until their bosses gave them bread-crusts, rather than matzo.
D (smiling): And we were raising our voices a bit—and, perhaps, shoving one another back and forth. It was a quarrel, nothing more, aye Brother mine?
A: And a friendly one, indeed! Yet suddenly, we were interrupted by that fop of a princeling, Moses—it was the first time we laid eyes on the fellow.
D: “What is with you two?” this perfumed, kohl-eyed scoundrel proclaimed, “Why do you fight one another? We Hebrews are not the enemy; Egypt is!”
A: I tell you, it was a shock. Who asked him to butt into our affairs? Well, we shut him down in short order. After all, we were Hebrew taskmasters, part of the power structure, and far from being slaves—who asked him to interfere in our lives?
D: Well, we shut him down in short order, and rushed to tell the Taskmaster-Captain of this treasonous talk. As for the Exodus, we would rather have stayed in Egypt—Sweet Egypt, how we miss you!—but, being Hebrew, we had no choice but to leave. Pharaoh drove out all of us “foreigners”; he doubted our loyalty. It all happened so quickly; we had no choice.
A: But we never forgot Moses’s inciting the rebellion. He ought to have left us alone, and happy in our native land.
D: And that is why we constantly criticized his leadership, pecking at his head all through the wilderness. The fellow clearly did not know how to lead, and who is to say that God spoke to him? Why, God spoke to us, on several occasions; I would swear to it. Did He not speak to you too, Brother Aviram?
A: It was God told us to rebel. Yes! It was God.