The Genealogy of Moshe

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


 

PARASHAT VAERA

 

The Genealogy of Moshe

By Rav Michael Hattin

 

INTRODUCTION

Parashat Shemot concluded on a dire and desperate note, with the first attempt of Moshe and Aharon to free their Hebrew brethren having ended in abject failure.  Pharaoh was utterly unmoved by their invocation of God’s mighty name and he responded to their entreaties as only a dictatorial and imperious tyrant could: by heartlessly increasing the burdens of the hapless Hebrew slaves.  Henceforth, Pharaoh would burden them with gathering their own straw with which to stiffen the consistency of the endless clay bricks:

That day, Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters and officers saying: 'Do not provide the people with straw for bricks as earlier.  Let them go and gather their own straw.  However, you must place upon them the same quota of bricks as before, do not reduce it!  They are indolent and therefore cry out: 'Let us go to sacrifice to our God'.  Let the work become heavier for the people so that they will be occupied with it, and will not be misled by false ideas.' (Shemot 5:6-9).

The oppressed Israelites’ brief and delirious reveries of freedom, earlier kindled by the unexpected arrival of Moshe and Aharon who bore tidings of salvation in God’s name, were thus cruelly dashed.  The angry outburst of the Hebrew taskmasters, held accountable by the mercurial monarch for the failure of their tired charges to meet the tally of bricks, was not long in coming:

They encountered Moshe and Aharon standing before them as they came out from Pharaoh's presence.  They said to them: 'may God see what you have done and judge you, for you have made us despicable in the sight of Pharaoh and his ministers, placing a sword in their hands to kill us!' (5:20-21).

 

And as for Moshe, how he must have at that moment recalled the great reluctance with which he had initially donned the mantle of liberator, even as all of his earlier protestations and reservations were overruled by the unwavering God who had solemnly declared that “I will be with you when you speak and I will tell you what to say” (4:12)!  Moshe’s feelings of disappointment and failure, frustration and disillusionment, were now palpable:

 

Oh God, why have You dealt grievously with this people, why have You sent me?  Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has dealt harshly with this nation, but You have not saved your people! (5:22-23).

 

The first round of the uneven contest between the all-powerful god king and the invisible God of the Hebrews was thus decided in Pharaoh’s favor, with the disheartened Israelite slaves and their well-intentioned but impotent leaders bowed and beaten. 

 

THE OPENING OF OUR PARASHA

 

But timeless God, whose boundless perspective embraces eternity, was neither anxious nor dismayed.  Soothingly, He calmed Moshe’s concerns and vouchsafed to him a vision of eventual triumph, indicating in no uncertain terms that the day of deliverance was at hand:

 

The Lord spoke to Moshe and said to him: 'I am God.  I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'acov by El Shaddai, but my name 'God' I made not known to them.  I also established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings in which they sojourned.  I also have heard the choking cries of the people of Israel whom Egypt oppresses, and I have remembered My covenant.  Therefore, tell the people of Israel that I am God, and that I shall extricate you from under the burdens of Egypt and I shall rescue you from their labor, and I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with awesome punishments.  I shall take you to Me as My people and I shall be your God, and you will know that I am God your Lord who extricates you from under the burdens of Egypt.  I shall then bring you to the land that I swore with an oath to give to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'acov, and I shall give it to you as an inheritance, for I am God' (6:2-7). 

 

But though he may have convinced himself of God’s sanguine promises, Moshe was unable to restore the broken spirits of his constituents: “Moshe spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not hearken to Moshe because of their impatience and because of the hard labor” (6:8).

 

When God then asked Moshe to return to Pharaoh “the king of Egypt” (6:11) in order to secure the release of the people of Israel, Moshe understandably responded with pained incredulity: “Behold the people of Israel did not listen to me, so how then will Pharaoh hearken to me, for I am of uncircumcised lips” (6:12).

 

 

MOSHE’S OVERDUE LINEAGE

 

This first, impassioned section of the Parasha ends here, followed by a long overdue listing of Moshe’s lineage.  This lineage list begins with Reuven, the eldest son of Ya’acov, and briefly outlines the descendents of the first three tribes.  But while the families of the first two tribes of Reuven and Shim’on are recounted in just the briefest outline, the clans of the tribe of Levi are described at length:

 

These are the names of Levi’s sons in order: Gershon, Kehat and Merari, and Levi lived to be one hundred and thirty-seven.  The sons of Gershon were Livni and Shim’i according to their families.  The sons of Kehat were ‘Amram, Yitzhar, Chevron and ‘Uziel, and Kehat lived to be one hundred and thirty-three.  The sons of Merari were Machli and Mushi, and these were the families of Levi in order. 

 

Amram took as his wife Yocheved his aunt, and she bore him Aharon and Moshe, and ‘Amram lived to be one hundred and thirty-seven.  The sons of Yitzhar were Korach, Nefeg and Zichri.  The sons of ‘Uziel were Mishael, Eltzafan and Sitri. 

 

Aharon took Elisheva daughter of ‘Aminadav, the sister of Nachson, as his wife and she bore him Nadav, Avihu, El’azar and Itamar.  The sons of Korach were Asir, Elkana and Aviasaf, these were the families of Korach. 

 

El’azar the son of Aharon took from the daughters of Putiel for his wife and she bore him Pinchas, these were the chiefs of the clans of Levi according to their families. 

 

These were Aharon and Moshe, to whom God spoke and said “liberate the people of Israel from the land of Egypt with all of their hosts!”  They were the ones who spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt to take out the people of Israel from Egypt, none other than Moshe and Aharon…(6:14-27).

 

It will immediately be noticed that the above list is arranged in descending order by generation, with Levi’s three sons – Gershon, Kehat and Merari – followed by their respective offspring listed laterally.  It will be further noticed that it is the line of Moshe and Aharon that predictably receives the most attention, for it is only the life spans of the patriarch Levi, his son Kehat, and Kehat’s son ‘Amram – the father of Aharon and Moshe – that are provided: 137, 133 and 137 respectively.  Additionally, the list provides us with a critical detail that had not been indicated earlier: ‘Amram took Yocheved as his wife, and she was the daughter of Levi and therefore his aunt. 

 

 

MOSHE DOWNPLAYED

 

But what is most remarkable about this list is that while it purports to provide us with the necessary genealogical background for Moshe who has been designated by God as the liberator, he is the most understated personality in the entire passage!  In fact, his name is mentioned only once in the listing itself, with no information concerning his wife (about whom we already know – see Shemot 2:21) or else his sons Gershon (see Shemot 2:22) and Eli’ezer (see Shemot 4:25; Shemot 18:1-4).  Conversely, if there is anyone in the listing who seems particularly prominent, it is actually Moshe’s older brother Aharon: “Aharon took Elisheva daughter of ‘Aminadav, the sister of Nachson, as his wife and she bore him Nadav, Avihu, El’azar and ItamarEl’azar the son of Aharon took from the daughters of Putiel for his wife and she bore him Pinchas, these were the chiefs of the clans of Levi according to their families”.  Thus we learn that Aharon married a prominent woman, for Elisheva’s brother Nachshon was none other than the tribal prince of Yehuda (see BeMidbar 1:7).  As for Pinchas the grandson of Aharon, he would achieve prominence much later for his zealous defense of God’s honor (see BeMidbar 25:1-15) and would eventually succeed his father El’azar as high priest (see Yehoshu’a 22:13; Shoftim 20:25).

 

It is the Rashbam (Shemuel ben Meir, 12th century, France) who surmises that the list before us is deliberately selective, and only recounts those individuals that later play some sort of significant role in the Torah’s narratives.  We must therefore be informed about Kehat’s other children Yitzhar and ‘Uziel, because Korach the son of Yitzhar will eventually achieve infamy as the self-appointed leader of an aborted rebellion against Moshe and Aharon (see BeMidbar Chapter 16), while Mishael and Eltzafan the sons of ‘Uziel will much later be called upon to retrieve the dead bodies of Nadav and Avihu from the precincts of Mishkan, after the latter offer “strange fire” on the occasion of the Mishkan’s dedication and prematurely perish (see VaYikra 10:1-5).  The Torah is therefore anticipating our eventual need for this genealogical information by concisely providing it now.  As the Rashbam himself relates:

 

According to the straightforward reading, the Torah must tell us here the lineage up until Moshe and Aharon.  As for Korach, the sons of ‘Uziel and Pinchas, since they will be mentioned later on in the Torah, we are told about their genealogies now so that we will realize who they are when they are introduced (commentary to 6:14).

 

For the Rashbam, this fact not only explains the inclusions but the omissions as well. Though Chevron son of Kehat certainly had descendents (see BeMidbar 26:58) while the important priestly line of Eli at Shilo was much later descended from Itamar son of Aharon (see Divrei HaYamim 1: 24:3), neither of these personalities are explored further in our listing since within the chronology of the Torah itself no prominence was attached to them.  Presumably, the Rashbam’s interpretation also explains the curious omission of Moshe’s sons, for while Moshe himself is the Torah’s central human protagonist, his sons do not inherit his greatness and fade into almost complete obscurity.

 

 

HIGHLIGHTING AHARON

 

But while the merits of the Rashbam’s interpretation cannot be denied, we note that the narrative nonetheless seems to construct a certain literary framework that tends to focus a spotlight on Aharon in particular.  Thus not only does he marry the prominent Elisheva sister of Nachson, but his son El’azar also marries a woman of prominence (though admittedly the text tells us no more about Putiel – see however, the commentary of Rashi on 6:25, quoting the Talmudic tradition preserved in Tractate Sotah 43a).  These marriages mirror of course the earlier marriage of ‘Amram to Yocheved daughter of Levi, and the three personalities – ‘Amram, Aharon and El’azar – are thus bound up in some sort of a matrix of fateful importance, with Aharon at the center.

 

Perhaps then this genealogy is about more than prominent personalities.  Recall that the buildup to the genealogy (that could have, by the way, been introduced at any number of convenient points in these early narratives of Sefer Shemot) was the failed mission of Moshe and Aharon, the Israelites’ intense disappointment in its aftermath, their taskmasters’ smoldering anger and Moshe’s feelings of frustration and inadequacy.  How he must have regretted being chosen by God to lead the people out of Egypt, a destiny that had anywise been imposed upon him against his will!  Had he not tried mightily to evade that destiny by reminding God of his insignificance (3:11), by pleading ignorance of His name (3:13), by claiming that the people would not accept him (4:1), by referring to his speech impediment (4:10) and finally by beseeching that someone else be sent in his stead (4:13)?  But all to no avail, for God would have none of it.  So reluctantly, Moshe had accepted his mission, but now his failure gave him intense pause.  “Choose someone else!” he may have been thinking, as Pharaoh rejected his demands, his people groaned under their newly imposed burdens, and the taskmasters vented their indignation at him.  “In fact”, Moshe may have said to himself, “why not choose a natural leader, an eloquent speaker and the elder and therefore more honored personality?  Why not choose AHARON?” 

 

In other words, the genealogical list of our Parasha may also preserve a subtle reflection of Moshe’s own perceptions: Aharon is important, Aharon is prominent, Aharon is eminently more capable than I!  Is it mere serendipity that this list is bracketed on either side by Moshe’s protests and feelings of despondency (6:10-12 and 6:29-30)?  Is it coincidental that at every one of Moshe’s low points God reassures him by indicating that Aharon will be at his side to help him (4:14-17; 7:1-7)?  But while God identifies with Moshe’s plight and acknowledges Aharon’s abilities, He will not allow Moshe to surrender his mission to his older brother and to thus evade his destiny.

 

The message for us is abundantly clear.  While we justifiably tend to highlight the national dimension of the Exodus account, considering the matter from the perspective of peoplehood, there is an equally important angle that is provided by the personal saga of Moshe.  His is the story of overcoming fear, of wrestling with failure, of trusting in God even when disaster is at hand and all venues have been seemingly exhausted.  God will not allow Moshe to cast off his destiny because what He demands of him (and of all of us) is to stay the course, to persevere and to ultimately triumph.  Understood in this light, Moshe’s “failure” is actually an important milestone in the story of his success, for setback always provides us with important lessons while also introducing the possibility of spiritual growth and development.  Moshe may therefore have attempted to conceal himself in the genealogy of our Parasha; its concluding passage, however, leaves no room for doubt as to who was designated by God as leader, for as it ends the prominence of Aharon is suddenly reversed:

 

These were AHARON AND MOSHE, to whom God spoke and said “liberate the people of Israel from the land of Egypt with all of their hosts!”  They were the ones who spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt to take out the people of Israel from Egypt, none other than MOSHE AND AHARON…

 

Shabbat Shalom