Monday, November 27, 2006

Dasan & Aviram : The Most Likely Scenario

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דף ה,א עבודה זרה

"......עני דכתיב (שמות ד) כי מתו כל האנשים ומאן נינהו דתן ואבירם ומי מתו מיהוי הוו אלא שירדו מנכסיהם"

The Gemara tells us that Dasan and Aviram were the ones who informed on (ratted out) Moshe to the Department of Slavery when he killed the Egyptian taskmaster. This offers us two conflicting accounts of these men. On one hand, we are to believe that they collaborated or sought favor with their Egyptian overlords, and then, on the other, the Torah counts them among those willing to follow the very same man they conspired against on a previous occasion, out across the water and into the desert!

We are also told by the Midrash that Dasan and Aviram had a hand in the Chet HaEgel incident at Har Sinai. These two guys, for not having any particular special status other than being grandchildren of a little known tribal elder, sure seemed to get around, especially in a world with a purported 2.2 million refugees! These guys would have to mount some kind of amazing and supernatural biltzkreig of persuasive advertising to get a large number of people to follow their lead into revolt. It doesn’t seem like either of them, both of them, or even when in league with Korach would ever be able to mount an effective revolt considering their small sphere of influence. So what was so special about them and why were they so determined to get back at Moshe that Moshe had to fear them should he return to Mitzrayim too soon?

This idea repeats in at least two other places in the Talmud; in Yerushalmi Nedarim 9 and in Nedarim 64b. To be honest, I could never figure out how the rabbis knew who the informers were. Shemos 4 only mentions that someone squealed to the cops, but it never says who or why. Our Gemara here suggests that Dasan and Aviram were now considered as ‘dead’, since in the interim period between their treachery and Moshe’s vision in the desert, these two men lost all of their status and thus, didn’t matter. This made it safe for Moshe to return to Mitzrayim.

I have a crazy question. How exactly did Dasan and Aviram become wealthy in first place if the entire Jewish nation was enslaved and suffering? No one bothers to explain how that works. One could retrofit into the story a tale about Dasan and Aviram bribing Egyptian taskmasters, taking small bribes (of some sort) from fellow Jews to perhaps escape from work or punishment, and then sift off a percentage of the ‘take’ for themselves. They may have even been well-paid informants, which makes perfect sense. The Egyptians would have to hire a few willing, cooperative Hebrews in order to have spies, managers, and agents on the inside for intelligence gathering, considering that the Jews spoke their own language and maintained their own separate culture. Dasan and Aviram may have also had good intentions, hoping to act as double agents and earn a few bucks on the side. They may have been helping the Egyptian field-boss manipulate the books so as to appear more productive, thus helping the taskmaster’s career in the process. I cannot see the Department of Slavery being any less corrupt than any other government agency since. Be that as it may, the Department of Slavery would likely have needed hundreds of such agents, and to assume that Dasan and Aviram were the dirty rats might be impossible to pinpoint. Let’s try anyway.

Since we have nothing but raw speculation as to how they may have come by their wealth under such harsh conditions, we also still have no clue as to how they lost that wealth later on. If we continue with our ‘most likely’ explanation, it would not be unreasonable, at this point, to assume that the taskmaster that Moshe killed was the one who was doing all the monkey business with Dasan and Aviram. This would also explain how these two came into direct knowledge of Moshe’s role in the killing! The presence of an Egyptian royal among the slaves would have been widely noticed. This unexpected turn of events, along with Pharoah’s mandate for higher productivity, not only killed the brother’s business plan, but also sent them back into hard labor. Once they lost their special status, they were ‘as good as dead’ in their own eyes. Dasan and Aviram blamed Moshe for interfering with their lucrative venture, and that blame turned into a lasting desire for revenge that the brothers carried with them out of Egypt and straight into the Midbar. It would explain why every time there was trouble for Moshe those brothers were somehow involved.

While we are on the subject of informers, we should ask as to why would Dasan and Aviram not report this killing to the authorities? Undoubtedly, the murder of an Egyptian government employee would bring a whole lot of unwanted heat down on that labor sector. It could be that they demanded the culprit step forth or the whole group would be punished. Had Dasan and Aviram not come forth with their testimony, it is possible that innocent persons might have been punished for Moshe’s act. We see what Moshe did as courageous and noble, but others, some Israelites included, might have seen this as bringing nothing but more trouble for an already troubled people. In retrospect, we may hate the brothers because of who they ratted-out or because their motives may not have been 100% pure, but they may have not had a choice in the matter, given the circumstances.

This account, completely concocted in my fertile imagination while pondering the most likely scenario given the circumstances, is not stated anywhere in Torah or Talmud. It does however, make all the pieces fit quite nicely together. Maybe our Sage was trying to do the same thing and looking for a better source than just his own imagination. (I used a most likely scenario, which commonly involves slaves, overseers, government employees, and random opportunists.)

Overall, I think we should cut them some slack. We find that the standards by which we deem a thing ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are often blurred by the various interests of those involved. Dasan and Aviram could have started out with the noblest of motives, but allowed their ultimate selfishness to prevail. They are no less human than we.

Kol Tuv

“I am myself made entirely of flaws; stitched together with good intentions.” (Augustyn Burroughs)

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