Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 16 January 2021 / 3 Shevat 5781

Parashat Vaera

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Human, Prenatal Greatness

The story of the Exodus is interrupted with a genealogical interlude, which recites the lineage of Moshe and Aharon, concluding with “these are Moshe and Aharon” — and from there, the narration resumes. The roster does not begin with Moshe and Aharon’s ancestor Levi, but rather outlines the tribes of Reuven and Shimon, and then continues to list the children of Levi — Gershon and his children - before getting to Kehat’s line, from which Moshe and Aharon descend. What is the purpose of this genealogical roster?

First, it was meant to show that Moshe and Aharon were human beings. Just as the story is about to turn into one of triumph, with Moshe and Aharon performing miraculous feats, we are reminded that they were mortals. We are shown the relationship of their tribe with preceding ones, and the relationship of their family and house with the families and houses of relatives. They had aunts and uncles and cousins.

Here, the Torah emphasizes that Moshe was an ordinary human. He will go on now to perform mighty miracles, lead the Jewish People out of Egypt, split the sea for them, sustain them in the desert, and bring the Torah down from Heaven. From the inception of his greatness, we are told that he was a man whose parents and grandparents everyone knew. At the same time, this removed the possibility of erroneous deification while demonstrating the heights to which a mortal can rise.

Second, the lineage is meant to dispel another illusion. While this “certificate of origin” verified Moshe and Aharon as humans, it may have also led to the belief that everyone, without exception, can be a prophet. But, if that were the case, then the “first-comer,” a descendant of Reuven, would have been chosen. Instead, the lineage of Revuven and Shimon, followed by all of the children of Levi, are recited — to demonstrate that the tribe of Levi was chosen, and in particular, Levi’s grandson Amram was chosen among them. G-d chose the most worthy and most exemplary to be His emissaries.

An examination of the names of Reuven, Shimon and Levi reveal the thoughts and feelings of our mother Leah when these children were conceived and born. If the mother-to-be can affect the soul of the child, then from the names, which reflect her innermost feelings, we can surmise why Levi was chosen. The name “Reuven” reflected the sentiment that “the L-rd has seen my affliction [as the less beloved wife]; my husband will love me.” (Ber. 29:32); The name “Shimon” reflected the feeling that “the L-rd has heard that I am the hated one; therefore he has given me this one too!” (Ber. 29:33). Finally, Leah names her third son Levi — “Now my husband will become attached to me!” (Ber. 29:34). In her feelings of disadvantage, she was saturated with love for her husband, and yearning for his reciprocal love — a love that reached its fruition with the birth of Levi.

Within the house of Levi, only one courageous couple, inspired by faith and love, reunited in a time of terror, expressing their great trust in the Almighty. Through faith and faithfulness, love and loyalty, was Moshe, the leader of the Jewish People, conceived.

  • Sources: Commentary Shemot 6:14-30

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