Rabbi Daniel Stein
Rabbi Daniel Stein

Saved by Sacrifice

The Torah declares twice with regards to the development of Moshe that he grew up and became a gadol. The pasuk initially states, "The child grew up, and she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter and he became like her son" (Shemos 2:10), and then again, "Now it came to pass in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens" (Shemos 2:11). The Ramban explains that this description is repeated in order to indicate that Moshe achieved not only physical maturity, but spiritual maturity as well. It would seem that the definition of spiritual maturity is when one is able to see the burdens of others and identify with their pain. However, the pasuk continues, "he saw an Egyptian man striking a Jewish man of his brothers. He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man, so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand" (Shemos 2:11-12). Moshe not only empathized with others, he also jeopardized his own anonymity and security in order to save the life of someone else. This implies that the height of spiritual gadlus and maturity is when one is willing to sacrifice from themselves for others. In fact, Rashi (Avos 5:21) claims that the age of spiritual maturity for boys, bar mitzvah, is derived from Levi, who at the age of thirteen was considered a "man" (Breishis 34:25), because he was ready to pick up a sword and endanger his own safety in order to defend his sister Dinah.

As a result of their willingness to sacrifice for others, Levi, and specifically Moshe, were worthy of becoming the future teachers and leaders of the Jewish people. In Parshas Vayechi, Yaakov blessed Levi, "I will separate them throughout Yaakov, and I will scatter them throughout Yisrael" (Breishis 49:7). Rashi explains that the tribe of Levi had to be spread and sent throughout all of Eretz Yisrael because their primary duty would be to teach Torah to the entirety of the Jewish people. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky (Emes L'Yaakov) adds that it was specifically Levi who was chosen for this mission, because every rebbi and teacher of Torah, must be able to sacrifice from themselves for their students and the community. When Levi took up arms to defend Dinah, he demonstrated the capacity to sacrifice for others, making his descendants uniquely suitable for the role of teachers and leaders within the community. Similarly, in Parshas Vayigash (Brieshis 46:28), Yaakov sent Yehudah ahead of the rest of the caravan to establish a beis medrash, a house of Torah study in Goshen. Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman (Avnei Azel) claims that Yehudah was singled out for this task because he pledged to preserve the welfare of Binyamin at great personal expense and peril. Yehudah's mindset of self-sacrifice and mutual responsibility is necessary when inaugurating a school of Torah study.

It is for this reason that Yocheved and Miriam who endangered their own well-being in order to save the lives of Jewish babies were rewarded by Hashem with "houses", as the pasuk states "He made houses for them" (Shemos 1:21). The Gemara (Sotah 11b) clarifies that the founders of the "houses" of religious leadership and royalty, Kehunah, Leviah, and Malchus, would be descendants of Yocheved and Miriam. Interestingly, it was Bilaam who advised Pharaoh to drown the Jewish babies (Sotah 11a and Shemos Rabbah 1:9), and according to Tosfos (Brochos 7a) Bilaam was accustomed to cursing the Jewish people daily by uttering the word "kalem", "annihilate them." Therefore, it is not surprising that Yocheved and Miriam, who thwarted the despicable plan of Bilaam, which was presumably triggered by the familiar formula of "kalem," should be rewarded with the houses of Kehunah, Leviah, and Malchus whose acronym is also "KaLeM." However, on a conceptual level as well, this was an appropriate reward for Yocheved and Miriam, and commensurate with their contribution. Religious leadership and royalty demand that one be prepared to sacrifice from themselves for others. Therefore, in recognition of their act of selflessness on behalf of the Jewish people, they rightfully deserved to be the matriarchs and paradigm for all future Jewish leaders.

In addition, even one act of self-sacrifice on behalf of others, can often outweigh and eclipse a host of other faults and transgressions. According to many meforshim, Dasan and Aviram from the tribe of Reuven were a pair of devious instigators. From their time together in Mitzrayim, throughout their travels in the desert, they consistently plotted against Moshe. Rashi (Shemos 2:15) writes that it was Dasan and Aviram who informed on Moshe to the authorities, requiring him to flee to Midian. Later, Rashi (Shemos 16:20) identifies the two individuals who defied the instructions of Moshe and left the manna over until the morning as Dasan and Aviram. Rabbeinu Bachya claims that it was Dasan and Aviram who proclaimed, "Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt" (Bamidbar 14:4). The Torah (Bamidbar 16:1) includes Dasan and Aviram as central figures in the attempted coup and rebellion of Korach. Finally, in Parshas Beshalach, the pasuk (Shemos 14:3) implies that there were two Jews who did not escape with Bnei Yisrael but elected to stay behind with Pharoah, and the Targum Yonasan identifies these two individuals as Dasan and Aviram.

If Dasan and Aviram were such detestable people who elected to stay behind in Mitzrayim, how did they survive the plague of darkness? Rashi (Shemos 10:22) claims that Hashem punished the Egyptians with darkness in order to conceal the demise of many Jews who were either not worthy of being redeemed or did not want to leave. If Dasan and Aviram were wicked and preferred to stay behind in Mitzrayim why were they not killed during the plague of darkness as well? Moreover, if they chose to stay behind how could they be present throughout Bnei Yisrael's travels in the desert? Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin (Maharil Diskin) explains, that despite all of their sins and transgressions, Dasan and Aviram were spared during the plague of darkness because they sacrificed on behalf of the Jewish people. In Parshas Shemos (5:14) the Torah tells of Jewish overseers who were beaten for not coercing the Jewish slaves to meet the stipulated quota of bricks. According to the Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 5:20), these Jewish overseers were none other than Dasan and Aviram. The beatings they endured in order to protect their fellow Jews from cruel and sadistic quotas, overshadowed all of their other offenses and indescretions and shielded them during the plague of darkness.

Similarly, Rabbi Chaim of Chernowitz (Be'er Mayim Chaim) suggests that Dasan and Aviram were reunited with the rest of Bnei Yisrael in the desert, even though they initially chose to remain behind in Mitzrayim, because Hashem split the Yam Suf a second time, just for them! The Torah states "Then the children of Yisrael came into the midst of the sea on dry land, and the waters were to them as a wall from their right and from their left" (Shemos 14:22). After the Egyptians pursued Bnei Yisrael into the sea and the waters came crashing down upon them, the Torah states again, "the children of Yisrael went on dry land in the midst of the sea, and the water was to them like a wall from their right and from their left" (Shemos 14:29). The Be'er Mayim Chaim explains that Hashem split the waters of the Yam Suf twice; the first time on behalf of the majority of Bnei Yisrael who initially chose to leave, and the second time for the sole benefit of Dasan and Aviram. Despite all of the damage caused by Dasan and Aviram, Hashem rescued them in dramatic fashion only because they had withstood suffering on behalf of others. In the merit of a renewed sense of obligation to the community, and a profound sense of appreciation to those who have sacrificed on our behalf and on behalf of others, may we all be blessed with permanent "houses" of Torah scholarship and leadership, and may Hashem redeem us once again with the coming of the Moshiach speedily in our days!

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