The names of Datan and Aviram are interpreted allegorically in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 109). Datan because he transgressed the Dat - דת -law of Hashem. Aviram because he was איבר fortified against doing Teshuva. These sons of Eliav and grandsons of Reuven are referred to in the Talmud (Nedarim 64) as the quarreling ones. They begin their negative activities in Misrayim prior to Moshe's escape to Midyan; continuing to foment trouble upon Moshe's return to redeem Bene Yisrael. They appear again during the exodus from Misrayim and numerous times as the rebellious ones in the Midbar.
Questions to Be Addressed
Why do we find them as a constant source of harassment; causing Moshe what appears to be undue suffering even after (as we will see) the kindness he bestowed upon them? What was their source of strength to survive and continue for so many years unabated as fomenters of trouble? What instigated their rebellious nature even towards the Creator?
Kindness of Moshe
According to the Midrash (MR and SR 2:11-12) Datan was one of the Jewish officers שוטרים in Misrayim. An Egyptian taskmaster had relations with the wife of Datan and there was an ensuing quarrel. Moshe saw this taskmaster beating Datan, and came to his defense and killed the Egyptian. Moshe went out the next day and saw Datan and Aviram quarreling (YR 119) regarding the previous day's incident. Moshe in his kindness stepped in and prevented them from critically injuring one another.
Harassment of Moshe
Thus began a series of defiant acts by these evil ones against Moshe who sacrificed his own position to show them kindness. R. Y. Shrem (mid 19th century -Aleppo) cites the Midrash that Moshe smote the Misri using a Divine Name. In killing the gentile, Moshe (who had speech difficulties) did not require to utter sounds associated with the letters בומף זסשר״ץ - Datan and Aviram taunted Moshe by asserting that he lacked the linguistic ability to kill them. The Divine Name associated with the killing of a Jew differs as it does indeed require the sounds associated with these letters.
Moshe ran away realizing that they too ( besides Par'oh) were hostile, even threatening to use the Divine Name against him! After his stay in Midyan, he is assured by Hashem (4:19) "The men who seek your life have died." The Talmud (Nedarim 64) asserts that these men included Datan and Aviram who were no longer a threat as they had become impoverished; this according to the Talmud being synonymous with death. R. Shrem explains that a condition to be able to make use of the Divine Name is that he not be one who accepts gifts from others to his own disgrace.
Hence, Moshe was advised that their poverty stalled any intent to harm him. We know that they did denounce Moshe to Par'oh and revealed (YS 167) that he was not actually the son of Par'oh's daughter. They continued to incite the people against Moshe (SR 129) demanding a return to Misrayim at Yam Souf and again when the spies returned from Cana'an (MT 106:5). They lead the revolution of Korah directed against Moshe. They defied Moshe's summons; accusing him of having brought Bene Yisrael out of the fertile land of Misrayim in order to have them die in the Midbar. (Meg 16).
Rebellion Against Hashem
Hashem instructs (Shemot 16) Bene Yisrael to only gather what was needed for daily consumption of the maan מן - and under no circumstances may anything be left over. The Torah reveals that two men did not listen and did indeed save over their portions. On Shabbat the Jews were instructed by Hashem to refrain from gathering the מן - maan. Nevertheless the Torah informs that "some" did go out to search on shabbat in defiance of Hashem. The Midrash (SR) and Ohr Ha'efelah assert that these rebels of Hashem's word were none other than Datan and Aviram.
Source of Their Strength
R. Yonatan Domb sights a statement of R. Aha Bar Hanina found in the En Yaakov on Hulin (9th Perek). "All who do kindness for one who does not have the sense to recognize the good done for them ; it is as if he tosses a rock to the idolatry of Mercolies." Namely the good the donor does for them, actually provides strength to their negativity. Datan and Aviram who were not recognizers of the good done by Moshe, were actually strengthened in their power to do evil through the kindness done for them by Moshe. The power of the greatest prophet's kindness served as fuel to propagate evil. This explains their success in perpetuating havoc amongst the people of Israel for so many decades.
Why Moshe Suffered at Their Hand
Two teachings are sighted in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 92) in the name of R. El'azar. "If a person does not have understanding it is forbidden to have mercy on him"; If one gives his bread to someone who does not "recognize good" - suffering comes upon him (the misguided donor). R. Yisrael Kanievsky explains that this is not a reference to one born without understanding; rather the subject here is one who refuses to recognize the good done for him. If the donor continues to have mercy on this type of individual - he himself will be the cause of his own suffering that befalls him. Moshe via his mercy towards Datan and Aviram - (who did not recognize the good done for them) generated thereby the suffering that befell him at their hand.
Rebelling Against Hashem
R. Baruch Rosenblum sights a teaching from the Midrash (Mishnat R. Eliezer) that if one begins to be an ingrate to his friend he will end up being an ingrate to his Creator. This fits perfectly with what occurred with Datan and Aviram. They initially rebel against Moshe and end up rebelling against Hashem in the Midbar.
Downfall of Datan and Aviram - Power of Speech
Earlier we cited R. Shrem who asserted that Moshe feared their ability to use the Divine Name against him. Evidently, they had a power of speech which was used in all of their evil endeavors. It would be this power that would turn against them contributing to their downfall. It began according to the Ba'al HaTurim when Reuven their Grandfather had offered to take upon himself the responsibility to return Binyamin to Yaakov. In his offer he said, "You may put my two sons to die". This oath though not accepted by Yaakov still contributed to the tragedy of Datan and Aviram. This conforming to the teaching in the Talmud that words contribute to a reality. The Talmud (Mo'ed Katan 16) teaches that when Moshe humbly went to dissuade Datan and Aviram from joining Korah they were impertinent and insulting to him. The Midrash (Bemidbar R. 18:10) calls out their response to Moshe's plea. "We will not go up". (16:12) This the source asserts was their unconscious prophesy of their downfall. They would not go up ! but rather would descend to Gehinam.
Recognizing the Good
We in contrast to Datan and Aviram must always strive to be grateful for all that is done for us by the Creator and our fellow human beings. This admirable trait will actually bring benefit not only to ourselves but will enhance and multiply the kindness done by our benefactor.