Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text-Shmot, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
When Moshe’s birth was chronicled in Parshat Shmot, the text deliberately omitted any description of his lineage, choosing instead to preface his birth with the mysterious sentence “And a man went from the House of Levi and he took a daughter of Levi.”
This omission of Moshe’s bona fides is now addressed in Parshat Va’eira.
God commands Moshe to return to Pharaoh and again demand the release of the Israelite slaves. When Moshe objects, citing his speech impediment, God repeats the directive, this time to both Moshe and Aharon.
The Torah then abruptly digresses to present a genealogical table listing the descendents of Yaakov’s oldest sons, Reuven, Shimon and Levi. The listing concludes with a detailed description of the lineage of Moshe and Aharon’s family within the tribe of Levi.
Upon completion of this genealogical record, the Torah returns to the narrative of the Exodus with the words “This was Aharon and Moshe…. They were the ones who spoke to Pharaoh…. This was Moshe and Aharon.”
Once again we are confronted with a strange and abrupt digression within the Torah text.
Why does the Torah specifically choose this dramatic moment to detail the lineage of Moshe and Aharon? Why interrupt the historical narrative midstream? This genealogical table would clearly have been more appropriate at the beginning of the story, when Moshe is first introduced.
Amram and Yocheved, the parents of Aharon and Moshe, are mentioned here for the first time by name. Given the reasons for the omission of their identities when Moshe is born (see Shmot 2, Approaches B, C), why does the Torah see fit to reveal those identities now?
Most of the classical commentaries are strangely silent concerning the most perplexing aspects of this passage, choosing to comment only briefly.
Rashi, for example, states that because the Torah mentions Aharon and Moshe at this time, the text feels compelled to tell us more fully of their birth and lineage. He fails to explain, however, why this information was not given in conjunction with the earlier appearances of Moshe and Aharon in the text.
The Sforno and Abravanel both maintain that the genealogical table is presented to show that the choice of Aharon and Moshe was not arbitrary. God begins His search for worthy leadership with the descendents of Yaakov’s first- and second-born, Reuven and Shimon. Only when He proceeds to Levi, the third tribe, does God find the quality He is searching for in Moshe and Aharon.
Once again, however, neither of these scholars explains why this information must be shared with us abruptly, at this point in the text.
The Malbim, in contrast, does offer a solution concerning the placement of the genealogical record. He explains that the passage in Va’eira marks the first time that Moshe and Aharon are clearly appointed by God as full partners concerning all aspects of the Exodus. Only once this partnership of brothers is firmly established does the Torah digress to chronicle their familial credentials.
Rashi finally notes that, as the Torah closes the genealogical table and returns to the historical narrative, the text identifies Moshe and Aharon twice and reverses the order of their names: “This was Aharon and Moshe…. They were the ones who spoke to Pharaoh…. This was Moshe and Aharon.”
Quoting the Mechilta, Rashi explains that, throughout the text, the Torah will variably list each brother first in order to demonstrate that Aharon and Moshe were equivalent to each other in greatness.
The premier halachic authority of the nineteenth century, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (known throughout the Jewish world simply as Reb Moshe), objects, however, to the Mechilta’s explanation: “Moshe was the greatest of the prophets, the teacher of the world, and the Torah was given by his hand. How can it be claimed that Aharon was his equal?”
Reb Moshe answers that at this juncture in the text, even as the public leadership of Moshe and Aharon is firmly established, the Torah conveys an essential truth concerning the worth of every human life. Moshe and Aharon each fulfilled his personal role to the greatest extent possible. They are, therefore, in the eyes of God, considered equal. God judges each of us against ourselves and not against anyone else. Someone of lesser ability, who reaches his full life potential, towers over someone of greater talent who does not – even if, on an objective scale, the latter’s accomplishments seem grander.
How telling that one of the most brilliant, accomplished leaders in recent Jewish memory views this text as conveying the value inherent in each individual – skilled or unskilled, public or private!
The most extensive treatment of the genealogical passage at the beginning of Parshat Va’eira, however, is offered by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch insists that the placement of this section specifically conveys a critical lesson concerning the nature of leadership throughout the Torah.
At this moment in the text, says Hirsch, we confront a major turning point in the careers of Moshe and Aharon. Until now, their efforts have been marked by frustration and failure. From this point onward, however, their triumphal mission – marked by powerful miracles and supernatural events – begins. The Torah, therefore, feels compelled at this juncture to make one fact abundantly clear for all time. Moshe and Aharon are of “absolutely human origin and the absolute ordinary human nature of their beings should be firmly established.” So important is this message that the Torah abruptly interrupts the historical narrative midstream to clearly delineate the ancestry of Moshe and Aharon.
As we have noted before (see Bereishit: Lech Lecha 2, Approaches), whereas pagans deified their heroes, and Christians returned to such deification, Judaism insists upon seeing its heroes as human beings. When your heroes are gods you can worship them, but you cannot emulate them. As long as we see the characters of our Torah as human beings, their greatness may be beyond our reach, but we can, nonetheless, aspire to that greatness.
On the other hand, Hirsch continues, a critical balance is struck in the passage before us. While the genealogical record clearly establishes the mortal origins of Moshe and Aharon, it also serves to counter the notion that every human being is suitable to prophecy. God’s choices are far from arbitrary. Aharon and Moshe were men, but they were “picked, chosen men.” God could have chosen from any tribe and any family. His specific selection of Aharon and Moshe serves to underscore that one who serves in a divinely ordained leadership role merits the appointment because of his own innate character.
The text thus captures the exquisite tension between the mortal origins of our biblical heroes and their overarching character and accomplishments.
Finally, the passage before us, with its extensive genealogical information, clearly serves as a contrasting companion piece to the earlier section in Parshat Shmot which chronicled the birth of Moshe. There, as noted in an earlier study (Shmot 2), the narrative is singular in its lack of information. Even the names of Moshe’s parents are deliberately omitted.
This omission is now apparently addressed and rectified in Parshat Va’eira.
Why, however, when all is said and done, are these two sections necessary? If the Torah eventually reveals the genealogy of Aharon and Moshe, why not do so immediately as soon as Moshe is first introduced in the text?
An approach can be suggested if we view these two passages as delineating a balance that shapes the life of every human being.
On the one hand, the glaring omission of Moshe’s ancestry in Parshat Shmot serves to remind us that the most important aspects of our lives are self-determined. While God decides to whom we are born, when and where we are born, our genetic makeup, etc., we determine, through our own free will, who we will become (see Bereishit: Bereishit 4, Approaches A).
Moshe ascends to leadership because of the choices he makes. The Torah, therefore, omits his parentage at the moment of his birth. Yichus (pedigree) does not determine the quality of Moshe’s life.
On the other hand, while pedigree is neither the sole nor the most important determinant of a person’s character, an individual’s family background certainly contributes to the formation of that character. Our ancestry creates the backdrop against which we weave the tapestry of our lives. Moshe’s story would have been incomplete if his family had not been mentioned. The genealogical table presented at the beginning of Parshat Va’eira is provided to fill in the gaps.
The omission of the names of Moshe’s parents and relatives on the occasion of his birth reminds us that Moshe achieves greatness on his own. The inclusion of those names in Parshat Va’eira reminds us of the role his family background plays in enabling him to succeed in his quest.