“Were I to forget where I come from, my life would become barren and sterile. Were I to forget whom I am the descendent of, I would be doomed to despair.” (Elie Wiesel Rashi pg 5)
Last week’s Torah portion related Moses and Aaron’s failed attempt to convince Pharaoh to “Send out My people, and let them sacrifice to Me in the desert.”(Exodus 5:1) The beginning of this week’s Torah portion continues with this story-line, and tells of God’s instructions to Moses to once again confront Pharaoh and demand the freedom of the Jewish people. It is in these verses and chapters that the stage is set for one of the ultimate climactic moment of Jewish history—The Exodus from Egypt.
Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, the former Chief Rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, notes a beautiful idea relating to the juxtaposition of the verses in our Torah portion this week, Parshat Va’era (Sichot Sefer Shemot pg 71). A critical reader will notice that the first aliyah of the Torah portion, spanning verses 6:2-13, relates the dialogue between God and Moses regarding his upcoming encounter with Pharaoh, “So the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, and He commanded them concerning the children of Israel and concerning Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to let the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.” The third aliyah, spanning verses 6:29-7:7, continue and conclude the above story-line, “And Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron was eighty three years old when they spoke to Pharaoh.” However, in a strange departure, the entire second aliyah from verses 6:14-28 breaks the flow of the above narrative and instead launches into a genealogical description of the family of Moses and Aaron, “These are the heads of the fathers’ houses…” (Exodus 6:14) Rabbi Nebenzahl asks the obvious question: Why does the Torah interrupt this important account regarding the impending redemption of the Jewish people, to insert a lesson in family history?
The answer Rabbi Nebenzahl provides not only resolves the biblical text, but also sheds light onto an important facet of our lives which is too often overlooked. He quotes an explanation of Rashi, the classical Biblical Commenter, who explains that the section discussing the family lineage is included here so as to inform us of Moses and Aaron’s place in the line of their illustrious ancestors. But while this seems a legitimate explanation, it does leave us wondering why specifically it is in this moment – and not at their first mention and introduction in Parshat Shemot — that the Torah deems it important to discuss their lineage?
Rabbi Nebenzahl explains that the Torah specifically places the telling of the lineage in the verses immediately preceding Moses and Aaron’s life-defining mission to Pharaoh in order to emphasize an important lesson: every person has a family, and roots deep and strong which help to nurture them to actualize their potential. Moses and Aaron were the two men chosen by God to be his emissaries and the vehicle by which the Jewish people would reach redemption, but their greatness was not theirs alone. It was the culmination of the love, guidance and strength of their ancestors before them that carried them through to this moment. Explains Rabbi Nebenzahl, had the brothers not received the nurturing care of their families, they surely would not have reached this exalted level. The praises of Moses and Aaron truly belong to their father Amram and the entire tribe of Levi, for the chain of generations all took part in shaping and molding the personalities to come.
But it is not only in moments of glory where one reflects on family. It is also in moments of trepidation, when one seeks strength and fortitude to overcome what seems like the insurmountable, that the natural instinct is to seek comfort in the strength of our ancestors before us. Moses and Aaron were on the cusp of a truly fearsome encounter with Pharoah, the most powerful man in the known world. With a word, he could end their mission—and their very lives. In that moment, they took a look back to their ancestors for strength, and that is the reason for the break in the verses. The Torah is imparting a timeless lesson that at life’s pivotal moments the greatest figures in Jewish history take comfort in the strength of their national past.
I believe that there is no better way to illustrate this idea than that which is recounted in Yaffa Eliach’s work “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust.” This story is based on a conversation with the Grand Rabbi of Bluzhov, Rabbi Israel Spira, with Baruch Singer, January 3, 1975.
It was a dark, cold night in the Janowska Road Camp. Suddenly, a stentorian shout pierced the air: “You are all to evacuate the barracks immediately and report to the vacant lot. Anyone remaining inside will be shot on the spot!”
Pandemonium broke out in the barracks. People pushed their way to the doors while screaming the names of friends and relatives. In a panic-stricken stampede, the prisoners ran in the direction of the big open field. Exhausted, trying to catch their breath, they reached the field. In the middle were two huge pits.
Suddenly, with their last drop of energy, the inmates realized where they were rushing, on that cursed dark night in Janowska. Once more, the cold, healthy voice roared in the night: “Each of you dogs who values his miserable life and wants to cling to it must jump over one of the pits and land on the other side. Those who miss will get what they rightfully deserve- ra-ta-ta-ta-ta.” Imitating the sound of a machine gun, the voice trailed off into the night followed by a wild, coarse laughter.
It was clear to the inmates that they would all end up in the pits. Even at the best of times it would have been impossible to jump over them, all the more so on that cold dark night in Janowska. The prisoners standing at the edge of the pits were skeletons, feverish from disease and starvation, exhausted from slave labor and sleepless nights. Though the challenge that had been given them was a matter of life and death, they knew that for the S.S. and the Ukrainian guards it was merely another devilish game.
Among the thousands of Jews on that field in Janowska was the Rabbi of Bluzhov, Rabbi Israel Spira. He was standing with a friend, a freethinker from a large Polish town, whom the rabbi had met in the camp. A deep friendship had developed between the two. “Spira, all our efforts to jump over the pits are in vain. We only entertain the Germans and their collaborators, the Askaris. Let’s sit down in the pits and wait for the bullets to end our wretched existence.”
“My friend,” said the rabbi, as they were walking in the direction of the pits, “man must obey the will of God. If it was decreed from heaven that pits be dug and we be commanded to jump, pits will be dug and jump we must. And if, God forbid, we fail and fall into the pits, we will reach the World of Truth a second later, after our attempt. So, my friend we must jump.”
The rabbi and his friend were nearing the edge of the pits; the pits were rapidly filling up with bodies. The rabbi glanced down at his feet, the swollen feet of a fifty-three year-old Jew ridden with starvation and disease. He looked at his young friend, a skeleton with burning eyes. As they reached the pit, the rabbi closed his eyes and commanded in a powerful whisper, “We are jumping!”
When they opened their eyes, they found themselves standing on the other side of the pit. “Spira, we are here, we are here, and we are alive!” the friend repeated over and over again, while warm tears streamed from his eyes. “Spira, for your sake, I am alive; indeed, there must be a God in heaven. Tell me, Rebbe, how did you do it?”
“I was holding on to my ancestral merit. I was holding on to the coattails of my father, and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, of blessed memory,” said the rabbi and his eyes searched the black skies above. “Tell me, my friend, how did you reach the other side of the pit?”
“I was holding on to you,” replied the rabbi’s friend.” (Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, pg. 3-4)
Rabbi Israel Spira, like Moses of old, was able to hold off despair and to muster the courage and fortitude to carry on against seemingly insurmountable odds. By recognizing the strength one reaps by “holding on to the coattails of my father…” he was living the lesson of Moses in this week’s Torah portion: when we are connected to and recognize the greatness of our past, nothing is impossible and there is no challenge that we cannot overcome. May we merit to draw on the strength of our past as we journey ever forward into our future.