The possibility of a ‘Jewish spark’
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TorahParshat Beshalach

The possibility of a ‘Jewish spark’

Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

Members of President Richard Nixon’s inner circle have shared vivid images of the last weeks of his presidency. Crushed by a disaster of his own making, the most powerful man in the world was reduced to wandering the halls of the White House intoxicated, rambling to the portraits of his predecessors that decorated the wall.

I have often pictured the Torah’s strange description of Pharaoh in the days following the Exodus in a similar vein: devastated by the series of plagues that through his own obstinacy had ravaged his kingdom and betrayed him as powerless.

And Pharaoh will say (lit. l’venei Yisrael) to the children of Israel, “They are trapped in the land. The desert has closed in upon them.” (Shemot 14: 3)

I can imagine the half-mad tyrant raving at Jews present only in his mind’s eye (or perhaps at wall paintings and hieroglyphics) that he can still trap them by the shores of the Red Sea.

There are other suggestions as to how to read the verse without recourse to this analogy. Rashi, following the classic translation of Onkelos, suggests that the verse above should be translated as “Pharaoh will say about the Children of Israel,” and provides a number of other examples where the prefix commonly translated as “to” can mean “about” or “concerning.”

Perhaps the most striking reading of the verse, which maintains the translation of “to,” is that of the ancient Midrashic expanded translation known as Targum Yonatan, which posits an actual Jewish audience for Pharoah’s tirade:And Pharaoh will say to Dathan and Aviram, sons of Israel, who had remained in Egypt, “The people of the house of Israel are trapped in the land.”

What a remarkable concept! This Midrashic reading suggests that even after 10 plagues, the night of Pesach and the Exodus, quislings — collaborators — remained from the Jewish people, who threw in their lot with Pharaoh, and continued to be present in his court as a fawning audience for his genocidal threats. Further, it identifies these traitors as none other than Dathan and Aviram, who a year later will lead a rebellion against Moshe (Bamidbar 16), and according to Rabbinic tradition, foils of Moshe and instigators of many other episodes of unrest. A precedent, perhaps, for similar Jews throughout the generations
who would throw their lot in with our oppressors.

This, of course, leaves one question unanswered: When did Dathan and Aviram rejoin the Jewish people? R’ Chaim of Chernowitz (1760-1816), in his classic Chassidic commentary “Be’er Mayim Chaim,” quotes an otherwise unknown tradition that at the Red Sea itself, the pair who had arrived as part of Pharaoh’s entourage, had an eleventh-hour moment of regret, and that after the Jews crossed the sea, it opened again specifically for Dathan and Aviram!

In every generation, we are told, our adversaries rise against us to destroy us, and often, there are sadly Jews at their sides. A Jew, Tiberius Julius Alexander, marched as Titus’ chief of staff to the destruction of Jerusalem. An apostate
from Judaism, Nicholas Donin, instigated the burning of the Talmud in France in 1242. The path to the expulsion from
Spain was paved by former Jews like Paul of Burgos and Geronimo de Santa Fe. Today, it is so painful to see examples
of Jews slandering Israel at her moment of need.

And yet. While acknowledging the painful phenomenon, the Midrash entertains the possibility of a “Jewish spark” buried even within the likes of Dathan and Aviram that leaves open a possibility of repentance and contains within the potential for miracle. PJC

Rabbi Daniel Yolkut is the rabbi of Congregation Poale Zedeck. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.

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