Parshat Vaera (Exodus 6:2 – 9:35)
The People of Israel, cruely subjugated into slavery by the Egyptian Empire, have cried out, and their cries have reached the heavens. Hashem chooses Moshe to lead the people out. Moshe refuses. He says that he is “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (or, in his own words, “I am not a man of words”). Hashem responds, saying that He is the one who gives men the ability to speak, and that He will assist him. He even offers Aharon’s services at a later stage, as Aharon was apparently an eloquent speaker.
All of these developments were related in the previous Parasha, which ended with Moshe’s frustration at Pharaoh’s heart hardening every time he and Aharon approached him, while Pharaoh demands that the People of Israel work even harder. Moshe approaches Hashem bearing harsh words. “I told you not to use me,” he says. “Ever since I have come to Pharaoh, the situation has only deteriorated further!”
Our portion opens with Hashem’s response to Moshe. He doesn’t mince His words, telling Moshe to return to the People of Israel and tell them they would be leaving Egypt shortly, and that they would reach the Promised Land. Moshe goes out to the people, but the people, who think that Moshe is hallucinating, don’t even grace him with a response. “But they did not listen to Moshe because of [their] shortness of breath and because of [their] hard labor.”
This is when Hashem tells Moshe to go back to Pharaoh and tell him to take the Jewish People out of Egypt. Moshe reacts somewhat cynically to these instructions, saying, “Behold, the Children of Israel did not hearken to me. How then will Pharaoh hearken to me, seeing that I am of closed lips?” It is as if he were saying, “If I haven’t managed to convince the Jews, how could I manage to succeed the non-Jews ruling over them?”
Interestingly, Moshe insists that he, and not the Jewish People, is responsible for this failure. The Torah states that the Jewish People didn’t listen to Moshe because of their own weakness, but Moshe, the great ruler that he was, assumes the responsibility instead of shifting blame.
The text continues as follows: “So the Lord spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, and He commanded them concerning the children of Israel…” What was he saying to them? How did he intend to take the people out of Egypt? All of this is quite vague and commentary is in order.
Later, the text describes Moshe and Aharon’s pedigree, which includes their parents, Yocheved and Amram, from the tribe of Levi. The text begins with the birth of Reuven’s, Shimon’s and Levi’s children, continues with a list of grandchildren, and the description of the family ends there. Then, the following verse appears: “They are Aharon and Moshe, to whom Hashem said, ‘Take the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt with their legions.’ They are the ones who spoke to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to let the children of Israel out of Egypt; they are Moshe and Aharon.”
A sensitive reader would immediately note the long and superfluous repetition. Clearly, the person chosen to take the Children of Israel out of Egypt would go to Pharoah to accomplish this task (especially considering that this was already related in the previous Parasha). For some reason, the verse begins and ends with the words “they are Moshe and Aharon”. What does all this mean?
The book of Bereishit, which we’ve just completed, is replete with stories of family crises, from cover to cover. Early in the book, we read that Kayin murders his brother, Hevel, and later, Yishmael is kicked out of Avraham Avinu’s house. Yaakov and Eisav began as enemies, but their conflict ended in a frosty ceasefire as each brother went on his own way. The Torah tells the story of Yosef and his brothers in great detail, and relates how one brother wanted to rule, while his brothers try to kill him, but end up selling him. The Book of Bereishit ends on a note of reconciliation between the brothers. Even though Yaakov favors Efraim over his elder brother, Menashe, the two maintain their fraternal bond. At any rate, the text makes no mention of any hostility between them.
The Book of Shemot begins with a radically different tune. Moshe, the youngest of the siblings in his family, receives the leadership over the nation directly from Hashem. Lo and behold, for the first time in the history of the human race, someone refuses the task. He isn’t right for the task, he says. He isn’t deserving of it, and others would do a better job, he claims. During the negotiations between Moshe and Hashem, Moshe is told that his brother, Aharon, would be only too happy to help him. We have not seen anything like this anywhere in Torah until this point. For a brief moment, this behavior seems to go against human nature: an elder brother, who we would expect to seek leadership, gladly forfeits this privilege in favor of his younger brother.
An upheaval has occurred in the family. The leader of the family isn’t one of Reuven’s or Shimon’s grandson – it’s the descendent of a younger brother. Even within Amram’s family, it’s the youngest son that is chosen, and no one envies him or tries to defy him.
The phrase “they are Aharon and Moshe”, in which Aharon’s name precedes Moshe’s, appears only once in the Torah. According to some interpretations, the text meant to emphasize that they were equal. However, I think that it intends to convey the exact opposite. The Torah wants to teach us that even though Aharon was older than Moshe and could speak better than him, he bowed out and let his brother take center stage. He complimented him, and cooperates with him, keeping in mind the sublime goal of taking the people out of slavery, and leading them to freedom. They are Aharon and Moshe, and they are Moshe and Aharon.
The nation’s salvation is guaranteed by its leaders’ ability to transcend envy and avarice. These two brothers’ ability to cooperate, in brotherly love, for the sake of the Jewish people, is part of their success. The brothers’ jealousy of Yosef led to Yosef being taken into Egypt, but the love between Moshe and Aharon took the Jewish people out.