Where did the sons of Moshe go?

“This is the lineage of Aaron and Moshe at the time that the Lord spoke with Moshe on Mount Sinai” (Bamidbar 3,1).

As we open the Book of Bamidbar, we should be familiar with Aaron’s four sons. Back in Parshat Shemini, we read the shocking story of the death of his two eldest sons Nadav and Avihu. And we’ll hear more in this parsha and going forward about his two remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar. 

But what about Moshe’s two sons, Gershom and Eliezer?  We haven’t heard anything about them in the entire Book of Vayikra. And as we will see here, they are a glaring omission in our parsha as well. 

At the beginning of Chapter 3 the text details the offspring of Aaron and Moshe. But look closely at the passages and notice if you see something missing:

“This is the lineage of Aaron and Moses at the time that the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. These were the names of Aaron’s sons: Nadav, the first-born, and Avihu, Eleazar and Itamar” (Bamidbar 3,1-2).

Did you catch it? Where are the offspring of Moshe? Where are Gershom and Eliezer? Even if they had died, they should still have been mentioned, like Aaron’s two eldest sons who died when they brought a “strange fire” to the Mishkan on the day of its inauguration. 

According to some commentators, if we continue reading in this chapter, in passage 27 we see that the family of Amram is named and counted along with the other heads of the Tribe of Levi. But this only confuses the issue more. Why are Moshe’s children hinted to here, but not mentioned by name above like Aaron’s children, since the passage says, “These are the offspring of Moshe”?!

One possibility is that the Torah wants to praise the unique spiritual level of Aaron and his sons; it is because of their greatness that they are chosen by God to be priests. Or maybe it is describing the special relationship that Moshe has with Aaron’s sons. But in praising the sons of Aaron, the text is implicitly criticizing the sons of Moshe, or even Moshe himself. We know about Moshe as a leader and as a prophet; but what about Moshe as a father?

All the way back in Chapter 4 of Shemot we read a strange story where God suddenly threatens to kill Gershom, and then Tzipporah acts quickly and circumcises the boy, staving off his death at the last moment. And in this encounter, the text reveals a subtle but telling detail about Moshe the father: 

“So Tzipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin…” (Shemot 4, 25). Gershom is her son, not Moshe’s. Moshe may be the “Ish Elokim,” the man of God, and as we will see, God calls him, “the most humble of all men.” But his responsibilities to the nation may have taken him away from the role of fatherhood to the extent that the boys are barely associated with him.

But it seems that the sons are not blameless as well, at least according to the midrash. The Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat Pinchas 11) says the following; 

“The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him (in Prov. 27:18), “’He who tends a fig tree will enjoy its fruit.’ Your sons sat [with] their own [concerns] and were not involved with Torah [study]… And why is the Torah compared to a fig tree? Since [the fruit of] most trees — the olive tree, the grapevine, the date palm — is gathered [all] at once, but the fig tree is gathered a little [at a time]. And so too is the Torah. Today he studies a little and tomorrow he studies much; as it is not taught in a year, nor in two.”

Though the presentation is poetic, this midrash says the unfathomable; the children of Moshe, the giver of the Torah, were not involved in Torah learning.

With all Moshe’s greatness as a leader and a prophet, to which there is no equivalent, Moshe’s role as a husband and a father were seemingly less than adequate. We’ll see in Parshat Beha’alotcha in a few weeks that Moshe leaves his wife Tzipporah; being available to G-d’s prophecy at all times, something that is totally unique to Moshe, renders him unavailable for any other roles. He cannot be the Ish Mishpacha, the family man, because he is the Ish Elokim, the Man of God.

It’s quite easy for us  to point the finger at Moshe for his inadequacies as a father and a husband. But we don’t have to read these as a criticism per se; sometimes there are negative consequences even when someone does the right thing. There is a Hebrew expression that I think expresses this well: לכל דבר יש מחיר, which basically means that every decision has a consequence. Moshe’s unique role did not allow for a normal family life. His calling to God and to the nation did not allow for it.

But Aaron’s role did. Even though Aaron was the High Priest, he was also able to be a loving and dedicated father, and he helped to elevate his sons to greatness. But Aaron was not the Ish Elokim.

So as a reader, what is the takeaway message from the omission of Moshe’s sons? One could argue that they are a warning to leaders to make sure that they maintain balance in their lives, and not to relegate child rearing entirely to the other spouse. And that’s a nice take-away. But it may not be a message that is relevant for Moshe. Because even though Moshe may have done the right thing by separating from his family, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t consequences to his actions. Sometimes there is a price to pay even when we do the right thing.

This is true for all of us as well. The decisions in life which are black and white are not really decisions. A real decision is where one is presented with two or more possibilities, each with pluses and minuses, each with consequences. In my own life the decision to make aliyah and to raise our kids in Israel thousands of miles from our immediate families comes to mind. And even though for my wife and I it was and still is the right decision, we pay a price for that decision every day. But that doesn’t mean it was the wrong decision. 

And so a more appropriate message to take away from the omission of Moshe’s sons is to understand that every decision has consequences, and sometimes even when we make the right decision, there is a difficult price to pay. 

What do you think? Do you think that Moshe should have been more involved with his family? Or does his role for the nation release him from family obligations?

In memory of the six Israelis who were killed by rocket fire from Gaza this week.

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Brought to you by the RRG Beit Midrash Program, the spiritual home for Hebrew University students on campus.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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