I am not one to claim superiority to Rashi and I accept his explanations as steeped in learning and sourced in authoritative texts. However, an explanation he gives in Parshat Shmot does not sit well with me, and while I cannot guarantee that my reading is better or even correct, I would like to present an explanation which accounts for some strange details in the parsha.
Before Moshe is born, Phar’oh sets up a scheme to eliminate all the Hebrew boys: he instructs the midwives to kill them. Two midwives, Shifra and Pu’ah (out of the 500 hundred, as they were in charge and either they would pass the word along, or Phar’oh didn’t want an singular and mass killing, but a deniable limited killing by only 2 midwives) report that the children are born before they arrive so they cannot carry out the order. They refuse to carry the edict out and ensure that the boys remain alive. But Phar’oh really wants the children dead so, based on the work of his astrologers he decrees that ALL boys born on a given day be killed. So, all people then become “hunters” of babies born that day.
The midwives are identified talmudically as Yocheved and Miriam. However, a few verses later, Yocheved becomes pregnant herself (one wonders how many births she could not attend because of her condition). Phar’oh must have noticed that one of his midwives was with child unless she, fearing the edict and knowing that she could not ensure her own, and her child’s safety, hid the pregnancy, not just the birth. Once Moshe is born (after 6 months according to the Rashbam, which would have made it easier for his mother to conceal the pregnancy and make him not a target on the astrologically ominous birth day, as he would look like a 3 month old already – alternatively, it gave her 3 months to hide him before people came and they would kill even a 3 month old who had escaped being killed on the day of his birth. This shows that outliving the moment of birth would not free one from the death penalty), she hides him and then has to put him in a basket and lets him float down river.
As it happens, Phar’oh’s daughter finds the child. She takes pity on the child and rescues it. This is no simple saving of a child – she knows immediately that the child is a Hebrew boy (either by inference – who else would have to put a boy in a basket, or explicitly, as she saw he was circumcised)! She is saving someone that her father has ordered killed, and she then houses the child and raises him as her own. What did she see that made her so aware of the child’s lineage? Wouldn’t others see the same thing? Then, Miriam arrives and volunteers the services of Yocheved (who had been absent, hiding her own pregnancy) as a wet nurse. Both these women would have been known the royal household as they spoke to Phar’oh in the previous chapter. The Hebrew midwives who did not kill the boys come back in to Phar’oh’s house and raise the Hebrew child. Phar’oh would not go and kill his own daughter’s adopted son, especially as it seemed that he was growing up and into the ways of Egypt. The Shadal quotes the Ramban in 2:11 that on that day, Mohe was told his actual heritage and his actions showed the Hebrew identity re-emerging.
A few verses later, Moshe kills an Egyptian man. When news gets out, Phar’oh seeks to kill him. It seems strange that the son of a Phar’oh can get the death penalty for killing an Egyptian subject. So why does it happen? Remember, Phar’oh had already wanted Moshe dead. But his daughter raised the boy and Moshe seemed to have been cleaned of the Hebrew spirit so Phar’oh did not need to continue to seek his death. It was only when Moshe “grew” that he reverted to his Hebrew roots. With that act of killing the Egyptian, it became obvious whom he considered his brethren and where Moshe’s allegiances lay. Phar’oh saw him again as a Hebrew boy and resumed his wish to kill Moshe.
Moshe runs away to Midian. Later, Hashem say that Moshe should return to Egypt because those that sought his life have died. Here (verse 19 of chapter 4) Rashi identifies those who died with Datan and Aviram. He explaims that, though they were still alive, because they had been reduced to a state of poverty, the text considers them as if they were dead (poverty is equated with death). However this ignores one other point – chapter 2, verse 23 said explicitly that Phar’oh died. Rashi quotes from the medrash to say that the king contracted leprosy but it isn’t clear if his point is that the leprosy was the mode of death, or if the king had not actually died. The Rashbam says that the king who sought to kill Moshe died so Hashem could have had Moshe return then, but Moshe was still worried because, as the Bechor Shor says, the decrees were still in place. Moshe was still a wanted man.
It would make more sense for the text to be saying what it explicitly claims – the Phar’oh who had been seeking Moshe’s life died. Stretching to connect the statement with Datan and Aviram seems completely unnecessary to me when there is a clear antagonist who fits the bill more completely. Datan and Aviram NEVER say that they have any interest in killing Moshe while Phar’oh does. Later on, Hashem reassures Moshe that the people who wanted him dead were gone. But then why does Hashem speak of “people” in the plural who want Moshe dead? Is it a ‘royal we’? No – there were many who wanted Moshe dead. The Shadal says that the plural includes the other leaders under Phar’oh who wanted to punish Moshe for killing the Egyptian man while the Rashbam calls the others, “malshinim.” Other commentators have the plural include the servants, especially ones who could identify Moshe by sight. But these explanations ignore the original death dentence on Hebrew children. According to the Talmud, Phar’oh’s astrologers warned him of the threat posed by Hebrew boys – it was their dire forecast which drove the mass infanticide. Clearly, the death of only the Phar’oh would not suffice if they were still around to give this recommendation. Their deaths were necessary as well, and this also would explain the large break between when the Phar’oh died (2:23) and when Hashem mentions that “kol ha’anashim” – ALL, not “both”, the men, have died (4:19).
To sum up, in my humble opinion, when Rashi connects “the men who died” with Datan and Aviram and justifies it through the medrashic notion of poverty, I think he misses the point, and when the other commentators associate the phrase with the servants who were following up on the killing of the Egyptian, they too are ignoring the essential reason that Moshe was a marked man. Only by tying the vendetta to the original commandment to kill all the boys born on a certain day do all the pieces fit.