It is quite the rap sheet. The Midrash in Shemot Rabba (1:30) tells us that they taunted Moshe for having killed an Egyptian taskmaster. They collected a larger portion of the Man than was necessary, only to see it become worm infested. At the height of Chet HaMeraglim they were the ones who issued the call to appoint new leaders and to return to Egypt. They complained at Yam Suf. Other Medrashim identify them as the ones who challenged Moshe and Aharon after their initial meeting with Paro, which had only led to further hardship for the Jewish people. Yet others identify them as the ones who went out on the first Shabbat to look for Man, only to find the desert plain empty and barren. Despite all this, however, they are only identified by name in our Parsha when they emerge as key co-conspirators in Korach’s ill-fated rebellion against Moshe and Aharon.
Datan and Aviram.
Who were these two individuals whose antagonism towards Moshe Rabbenu and his mission was so intense that Chazal attributed virtually every anonymous clash to them? One possibility is that the very anonymity that left them unnamed until the Korach rebellion is what caused them to be blamed. As is explained in the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni (Shemot, Chelek Alef, Remez 167) all actions that are unattributed (in the Torah) should be attributed to known evildoers. In other words, since we have no clear indication as to who these individuals who challenged Moshe and were a continual thorn in his side actually were, we prefer to implicate those who we know to be evil in these actions as well, rather than to accuse others who we have no reason to suspect. As this answer seems more serviceable than satisfying, perhaps by examining their behavior in our Parsha we can suggest a different explanation.
In the Parsha we find two direct confrontations between Moshe Rabbenu and Datan and Aviram, but only during the first one is there direct interaction between them. (In the second, (16:25-30) Moshe makes his famous declaration predicting the fate of Datan and Aviram, but they do not respond to him.)
In that pivotal initial conversation (16:12-14) Moshe reaches out to Datan and Aviram (“and Moshe sent to Datan and Aviram”) only to be rudely rebuffed. The sting of this rejection is obvious from Moshe’s reaction (16:15) where the passuk describes him as becoming angry, and demanding that Hashem not accept their offerings. It is worth quoting Datan and Aviram’s words in full, as two aspects of their response may help us understand why Chazal associated Datan and Aviram with the earlier incidents that we noted.
And they said, we will not come up (lo naaleh). Is it not sufficient that took us out of (literally: up from) the land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the desert that you wish to make yourself our overlord as well? Moreover, you have not brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you bequeathed us fields or vineyards, will you blind the eyes of these men, we will not come up (lo naaleh).
What was Moshe’s intention when he reached out to Datan and Aviram, and what triggered such a harsh response to his invitation? Both Rashi and Ramban suggest that Moshe’s overture to his adversaries needs to be understood within the context of the preceding verses. In those pesukim, Moshe attempts to begin a dialogue with Korach, but Korach does not even deign to respond. The Midrash (Tanchuma 15) explains that this silence was a calculated response on the part of Korach. Korach realizes that any dialogue with Moshe would boomerang on him and on his rebellion. So he chooses to simply ignore Moshe’s outreach. Following this silent rebuff, the Midrash tells us, Moshe shifts his focus and instead reaches out to Datan and Aviram.
But how do Datan and Aviram interpret Moshe’s overture? Rashbam explains as follows: “We will not come up, to be judged”. Drawing on other pesukim in Tanach where the words “to go up” mean to appear before a court for judgement, Rashbam shows that Datan and Aviram totally misinterpret Moshe’s message. Rather than seeing Moshe’s overture as an act of conciliation, they view it as a threat and respond in kind. But why did they view it this way, and moreover, why did they respond at all? Why did they not simply ignore Moshe as Korach before them had done? As the Midrash noted, that was the far safer strategy.
We can suggest that it was precisely the history that existed between Moshe and Datan and Aviram which led them to both misinterpret Moshe, and to respond in light of that misinterpretation. Given the years of antagonism and hostility that we have posited exists between these protagonists, it is no wonder that Datan and Aviram immediately assumed the worst about Moshe Rabbenu’s intentions. Had there been no previous history here, they might not have jumped to conclusions. We could of course argue that given the circumstances of the rebellion, we would expect that Datan and Aviram would suspect that Moshe wanted to bring them to trial rather than reach an accommodation. But even were this to be the case that would not explain why they chose confrontation with Moshe over simply ignoring him. By recognizing the history of bad blood between them however, we can easily understand why Datan and Aviram could not let an opportunity to dig at Moshe go by.
This brings us to a second and more fundamental point that can be derived from Datan and Aviram’s response to Moshe. This is their shocking reference to Egypt as being Eretz Zavat Chalav U’Devash, a land flowing with milk and honey. Rav Elchanan Samet (Iyunim B’Parshat HaShavua, series #2, pp 224-227) points out that the Tanach uses the phrase Eretz Zavat Chalav U’Devash twenty times. Only once does it refer to any land other than the Land of Israel. That one time, of course, is here. But, as Rav Samet points out, the audacity of Datan and Aviram knows no limits. If we look in Parshat Eikev (Devarim 11:9-12) we see that while the Land of Israel is being described as Eretz Zavat Chalav U’Devash, it is none other than Egypt which is specifically contrasted to the Land of Israel! As the passuk says “it (i.e. the Land of Israel) is NOT like Egypt, which you left”. Surely, then, Datan and Aviram’s reference to Egypt as being the true Land of Milk and Honey can only be made to bait Moshe.
This brings us back to our thesis that Datan and Aviram’s comments during the Korach rebellion tie them to the events that the Midrash attributes to them. Who else would refer to Egypt as a land of milk and honey if not people who had previously complained about the results of Moshe’s mission to Paro, who complained at Yam Suf and who had called for a return to Egypt? Who would look to try and diminish the importance of the Man in order to inflate the value of the land that had been left behind? Datan and Aviram, who were never able to let “Egypt go” use this moment of rebellion against Moshe to show their true colors. And this is why Chazal knew intuitively that the villains of our drama were the villains of so many earlier dramas as well.
In this context it is interesting to note that in the passukim immediately preceding the description of Eretz Yisrael and its contrast to Egypt (Devarim 11:1-7), Moshe Rabbenu reminds Am Yisrael of how they had witnessed the greatness of Hashem with their own eyes. He then notes they saw multiple examples of Hashem’s greatness and care in the desert, but curiously the only specific case that he cites to demonstrate the point is what happened to Datan and Aviram. Even Korach is not mentioned, just Datan and Aviram. And then, just two pesukim later, Moshe tells the people to continue keeping the mitzvot so that they will inherit the land and that they and their descendants will merit living in Eretz Zavat Chalav U’Devash. I think it likely that the story of Datan and Aviram’s demise is placed right here, to remind us of where the true Eretz Zavat Chalav U’Devash can be found.