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Generation Why

When going on a journey, ensure, all are accounted for and leave no one behind. That, to a great extent, encapsulates the laborious details of the census carried out in the opening of the portion and Book of Bamidbar. This obvious and categorical instruction is painful to read now, though it comes as a crucial and timely reminder.

And yet, on a closer reading it seems that the details of the census do not add up, people are in fact disconcertingly and conspicuously missing. Having received all the information regarding the census, chapter 3 opens with what appears to be an incongruous addendum, 3:1,2

וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֥ת אַהֲרֹ֖ן וּמֹשֶׁ֑ה בְּי֗וֹם דִּבֶּ֧ר יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֖ה בְּהַ֥ר סִינָֽי׃

This is the generations of Aaron and Moses at the time that God spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai.

וְאֵ֛לֶּה שְׁמ֥וֹת בְּֽנֵי־אַהֲרֹ֖ן הַבְּכֹ֣ר ׀ נָדָ֑ב וַאֲבִיה֕וּא אֶלְעָזָ֖ר וְאִיתָמָֽר׃

These were the names of Aaron’s sons, Nadav, the first-born, and Avihu, Eleazar and Itamar;

Rashi and other commentaries immediately pick up on the missing link, or should we say generation; he expounds;  The verse goes on to mention only the sons of Aaron! Yet they also are called the sons of Moses because he taught them the Torah. This tells us that whoever teaches the Torah to the son of his fellow man Scripture regards it to him as though he is their parent.(Sanhedrin 19b). 

This is a reasonable retort to the question we did not ask, why were Aaron’s children regarded as Moses’s? The answer provided is touching and prompts yet another query that The Maharal of Prague, ingeniously expands in Gur Aryeh..Moshe Rabbeinu, our TEACHER educated thousands of students. Why are only the sons of Aaron mentioned? He suggests that the children of Aaron received additional attention, tuition, due to their duties as priests. These striking insights however do not address why Moses’s children are missing. 

It is bewildering, the children of our greatest leader hardly get any mention throughout the Torah, their condensed stories are brought in a most unexpected context in the portion Yitro, despite the fact that Gershom is born, and appears in the portion of Shemot. Moses had escaped Egypt and found refuge with Yitro who gave his daughter Tzipora to be his wife, 2:22; …and she bore a son whom he named Gershom, for he said, “I have been a stranger (Ger) in a foreign land.”. 

Later in the opening of the portion of Yitro, we receive some additional information. Perceiving that the mission has been accomplished, Yitro is coming to reunite Moses’s family, 18:2-4

וַיִּקַּ֗ח יִתְרוֹ֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־צִפֹּרָ֖ה אֵ֣שֶׁת מֹשֶׁ֑ה אַחַ֖ר שִׁלּוּחֶֽיהָ׃

So Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home,

וְאֵ֖ת שְׁנֵ֣י בָנֶ֑יהָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאֶחָד֙ גֵּֽרְשֹׁ֔ם כִּ֣י אָמַ֔ר גֵּ֣ר הָיִ֔יתִי בְּאֶ֖רֶץ נָכְרִיָּֽה׃

and her two sons—of whom one was named Gershom, that is to say, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land”;

וְשֵׁ֥ם הָאֶחָ֖ד אֱלִיעֶ֑זֶר כִּֽי־אֱלֹהֵ֤י אָבִי֙ בְּעֶזְרִ֔י וַיַּצִּלֵ֖נִי מֵחֶ֥רֶב פַּרְעֹֽה׃

and the other was named Eliezer, meaning, “The God of my father’s [house] was my help, delivering me from the sword of Pharaoh.”

A new and fascinating, as yet, untold piece of harrowing information regarding Moses’s escapades in Egypt and the real threat of death at the hands or sword of Pharaoh, before he escaped. But after this we never encounter either of Moses’s children again, they become generation why! So why indeed are they absent? There is something deeply tragic if not disturbing. In the very pronounced account, we are made aware of the legacy of Aaron’s children who will always be recognized and serve as priests. – And Moses’s legacy? His children?

Perhaps there is a larger decisive message which is being communicated. Whereas the priests may follow a family lineage, the prophet and leader does not. This mantle is open. The traumatic experience of despotic leaders of Pharaohs following Pharaohs was broken. That was the Egypt we left. Moses, our teacher exemplified this far reaching aspect of the exodus. The hierarchy is not a given; it needs to be earned through qualities that are not genetic rather genial. It is not that Moses’s children are missing, rather as the commentators intimated, that playing field, that status of being his children, is wide open, all of us have that potential. This radical model of leadership is also a timely reminder to the (chief)rabbis and politicians who have taken on the role of “priests”, believing in a delusional and reckless manner that their positions are handed down to them and they can remain indefinitely. 

זֹ֖את לא הַתּוֹרָ֑ה אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מֹשֶׁ֔ה לִפְנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל  This is NOT the Torah that Moses set before the (his) CHILDREN Israel.

Shabbat shalom

About the Author
Shalom Orzach is a senior educator and consultant for the iCenter and serves on faculty for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. He was a scholar on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows Program, following which he was the Executive Director for Jewish Renewal at the UJIA in England. Shalom is an acclaimed public speaker on contemporary Israel who brings extensive knowledge, humor and passion.
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