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Parshas Vaera

Who Speaks For G-d?1

Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon and commanded them regarding the Bnei Yisrael…These are the heads of their fathers’ houses: the sons of Ruvein…

Talk about ruining a mood.

In the space of one verse, the Torah ratchets up the action several levels from the matter-of-fact dialogue between Hashem and Moshe that took place before. Through Parshas Shemos, the verb of choice in their conversations was ויאמר, which is far more gentle than the harsher וידבר that is inaugurated with Parshas Va’era.

But now, the stakes change abruptly. Hashem drops the negotiations of last week’s parshah, and even moves away from the “I really want you to do this” implied by וידבר. Now it becomes ויצום - He commands, orders Moshe and Aharon. The time for debate has expired. The time of redemption has arrived. No demurrals accepted. Moshe and Aharon are instructed to start the countdown to the final run-up preceding the geulah.

Something big ought to happen next.

It doesn’t. Rather than continue with some development, the Torah seems to walk away from the rising expectation, and interjects a Jewish family tree – although only half-heartedly. When it finishes, it repeats the two verses that precede this one, as if returning us to where we were before the unexpected interruption!

It is a strangely truncated tree. It seems intent on telling us who Moshe and Aharon are, rather than list all the families of Klal Yisrael. Yet it tells us much more than their lineage. It provides a brief outline of the two tribes that come before Levi, as well as the side branches within Levi that were not responsible for the birth of Moshe and Aharon.

What emerges is not the usual story of who begot whom, but the fuller context of their upbringing. We learn about the place of their shevet relative to the ones that came before. We find out about Moshe and Aharaon’s uncles and cousins, and calculate that their father and grandfather – both blessed with longevity – must have still been available to guide and influence them in the years just prior to their assuming the mantle of leadership. Only when we have fully absorbed their familial background does the Torah point to them and stress, “These are the Aharon and Moshe to whom Hashem said, ‘Take out the Bnei Yisrael from the land of Egypt,’…these are those Moshe and Aharon.”[2]

Had Moshe’s mission continued to meet with the failure of his first encounter with Paroh, none of this information would have been necessary. Precisely because the Torah places us on the threshold of his breathtaking success, it insists on spelling out for us that he was a mortal human being, whose origins were well know to all.

From early times, men who performed astounding feats were turned after their deaths into gods. In later times, a Jew whose genealogy was not well established, and who brought a bit of light to the world (borrowed from Moshe!), was turned by millions into a divine being, fathered by G-d. His divinity became a cornerstone of a major faith.

Poised to begin a remarkable career unmatched by anyone, our Moshe is introduced to us as a human. Even after he ascends Har Sinai and brings back the Word of Hashem, even after the after-glow of that encounter steadily radiates from his face, Moshe remains human. When he dies, his burial place is hidden from us so that no one will attempt to deify him posthumously. He begins his meteoric rise to fame as a human, remains human, and will always remain human.

A human being can ascend to greatness and still remain human. Humans sometimes are privileged to speak to G-d, and to speak in His Name as genuine prophets. This finding, however, can lead to an erroneous conclusion in the opposite direction. Some religions preach that not only does one not need to be godly to speak to G-d, but that anyone and everyone can. The person shouting from the soap box on the corner might by G-d’s prophet. So might be the village idiot. One religion takes pride in the illiteracy of its prophet; the transformation of this person into the transmitter of a work of elegant expression is claimed to be the greatest of all miracles.

The Torah here dismisses this possibility as well. Moshe and Aharon may have been fully human, but they were carefully and deliberately chosen. Had fools and simpletons sufficed, plenty were available. Had candidates of ordinary greatness sufficed, G-d could have found many among the tribes of Ruvain and Shimon, or among the other families of Levi.

One of the messages of this limited genealogy is that Hashem picks His spokespeople exceedingly well. Even within the stellar accomplishments of the Avos, only Yaakov was chosen to be the real father of the House of Israel. Aharon and Miriam were extraordinarily great – but they were passed over in favor of Moshe.

Bearing the Word of G-d is not for demi-gods, but it is not for just anyone. Chazal tell us that a prophet must be strong, wise, and well-off. If prophecy were to become the province of the weak and afflicted, the delusional musings of the ill would be confused with Divine messages. The prophet must be wise, because it takes deep understanding to grasp the meaning of His Word, so as to be able to communicate it to others. The prophet must be financially independent, so that no interpersonal dependence or subconscious need will taint his ability to objectively discern the truth.

Our pesukim here add to the list of credentials for this particular mission. We cannot immediately discern just what Moshe gained from all the resources available to him within his family and outside of it. We might gain some insight by summoning up some imagery from the early history of this family. There is a pattern in the names of that Leah assigned to her sons. Her firstborn’s name echoes the dejection she felt prior to his birth, and her gratitude to Hashem for responding to her pain. With each successive son, she becomes less downtrodden and more optimistic. With Levi’s birth, she feels that she has finally been part on an equal footing with her husband.

We can surmise that Leah’s change in attitude subtly affected the development of her children, as her feelings spilled over to the children she bore. It took much courage and devotion to duty for Amram to return to the Yocheved he had earlier divorced when bearing children had become painful and futile because of Paroh’s edict to kill the male babies. It took complete submission to the Will of Hashem for Yocheved to return, and agree to attempt motherhood under the circumstances. It is no coincidence that the two were described not by name, but simply as a “man from the house of Levi” and a “daughter of Levi.”[3]

It was the Levi in them both – not the Ruvein or Shimon – that allowed the union. It was precisely this diminution of self that they shared that they in turn passed on to their son, Moshe. In him, it would take the form of the most important requirement for the greatest of all prophets – the gift of humility.

The one who spoke most perfectly in the Name of G-d was neither Divine nor ordinary. In the end, we learn why the genealogy that began with Ruvain ends where it does – at a point that was not arrived at randomly, but precisely determined.


[1] Based on Hirsch Chumash, Shemos 6:13-14
[2] Shemos 6:26-27
[3] Shemos 2:1



 






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