By virtue of an acclaimed Broadway production of recent vintage, many have come to a renewed appreciation of the fascinating story of an American “Founding Father”. His roller coaster life, punctuated by the key role he played in the shaping of the great experiment called American democracy, inspired the opening words of “Hamilton”: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
This triumphant question speaks to our delightful wonderment when “underdogs” succeed in the face of tremendous challenges and adversity. It reminds us that greatness is not reserved for the privileged few with “good yichus”, but rather is available to anyone willing to make the effort necessary to attain it. It is in this context that we can perhaps best appreciate the Torah’s curious presentation of Moses in this week’s Torah reading, Va’era.
Curiously, the Torah withholds information about the lineage of Moses until well into his life and career. Why wait? We would have expected to learn of Moses’ “yichus” at the time of his birth. Instead, we are merely told at the time that “a man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi, and the woman conceived and bore a son…” (ibid., 2:1-2). This anonymous entry to the world is hardly the introduction we would expect for the most consequential figure in Jewish history.
Only later, in Parshat Va’era, is a more detailed genealogical account finally given, beginning with the tribe of Reuben, first-born to Jacob [ibid., 6:14], and culminating with the birth of Moses from the tribe of Levi: “And Amram married Yocheved…and she bore him Aaron and Moses” [ibid., v. 20]. Why do learn of this lineage at this time, rather than at the time of Moses’ birth?
To arrive at an answer, let us examine an important juxtaposition of passages earlier in Exodus: God instructs Moses to declare to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, ‘My first-born son is Israel. And I say to you, send out my son so that he may serve Me, and if you refuse to send him out, I shall kill your firstborn son!’” [ibid., 4:22-23].
Then, in the very next two verses, we read of an almost unfathomable incident: “And it happened on the road to the inn, and God met him desiring to slay him. And Tziporah [Moses’ wife] took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son, causing it to touch his feet. And she said, ‘You are a bridegroom of blood for me!’, and He released him; then she said, ‘A bridegroom of blood for circumcision!’” [ibid., v. 24–26].
The common thread connecting these two passages is the serious consequence stemming from failure to comply with God’s commands. If Pharaoh refuses to free God’s “first-born son” (Israel), then Pharaoh’s first-born son, and the first-born sons of all Egyptians, would be slain as a measure-for-measure punishment. Similarly – and ironically – Moses faces a similar punishment for his failure to circumcise his son.
Why is the Torah discussing God killing of the son of the man who attained a nearness to God unmatched by anyone before or since?! The lesson is striking: if Moses – the chosen of God to lead His first-born Israel – is lax in circumcising his son, a crucial religious obligation of initiating one’s progeny into Jewish fate and destiny – then even Moses stands to be punished by God! By extension, the People of Israel will retain its elevated status only if it deserves to retain it, by keeping up to its national and religious ideals.
This dovetails with the Torah’s adamant opposition to primogeniture. As we find throughout Genesis, there is nothing inherently superior about first-born status. Rather, it is achievement in life rather than birth order; merit and morality rather than biology, which are of paramount importance. This explains the significance of the Torah’s switching of the order of the brothers’ names: “These are Aaron and Moses, whom God has said are to take the People of Israel from the land of Egypt…they are Moses and Aaron” [ibid., v. 26–27]. Even the elder brother, Aaron, must play second fiddle to the younger and more worthy Moses.
The success of the underdog has always, and will always, stir within us feelings of hope that we, too, can achieve great things in life. After all, if a penniless orphan from an island in the Caribbean can become one of the most important figures in American history, and a foundling Hebrew child born to nameless parents doomed for Egyptian slavery can grow to adulthood as one of the greatest liberators in world history, every single one of us can make it big despite our lack of pedigree or lack of aristocratic standing.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.