Vaera: Identity and Integrity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

Well, friends, Theo is back with the Red Sox, so I can’t think of a better time to read about signs and wonders! (now, if Theo can put together a team to put a plague on the Yankees, we’re really talkin’ miracles.)

Speaking of signs and wonders, Parshat Vaera begins with God “prepping” Moshe to confront Pharaoh, and ends with the plagues in full force. However, the text has a break in the action, just before the plagues begin, in which we find a family tree for Moshe and Aharon, going all the way back to Levi, the third son of Yaakov.

This genealogy ends with a confirmation of that the Moshe and Aharon who were commissioned by God to free the Israelites are the same Moshe and Aharon who confronted Parsha in Egypt:

“It is the same Aharon and Moshe to whom the Lord said, `Bring forth the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop.’ It was they who spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt to free the Israelites from the Egyptians; these are the same Moshe and Aharon. ”
(Shmot/ Exodus 6:26-27)

This genealogical interpolation into the Exodus narrative links the family that came down to Egypt- Yaakov’s sons and their households- with the much larger nation which will
soon leave Egypt. This section of text also puts Moshe, who was raised as an Egyptian prince, firmly into the context of Israelite identity and history- it “proves,”as it were, that he is really an Israelite, and has a right to lead the people.

However, if you’ve been reading these email commentaries for more than a few weeks now, you know that the ancient rabbis look for moral and spiritual meaning in every
sentence of the Torah- this does not cancel out the more direct textual understanding, but adds to it. You also know that any time a word is repeated or used in an unusual way, the rabbis “perk up their ears,” as it were, and investigate what’s going on. In our
passage above, one phrase noticed by Rashi (among others) is the repetition of the phrase “Moshe and Aharon”- if we know it’s the same Moshe and Aharon who were commanded by God, why do we need to know it’s the same guys who confronted Parsha?

Rashi, quoting the Talmud, sees “the same Moshe and Aharon” as a statement about their essential integrity, not their public identity:

“These are the same Moses and Aaron”. . . . They remained in their mission and in their righteousness from beginning to end.

Rashi’s comment takes us from a straightforward family history to an ideal of human self-knowledge and steadfastness in the face of tremendous challenges. After all, Moshe and his brother had been commissioned by God, and were given signs and wonders which
confounded a great empire. It’s entirely possible that lesser people would have become arrogant, or self-important, or lost sight of the ultimate goal, which was not the destruction of Egypt, but the liberation of Israel.

Not every person is called directly by God to confront a tyrant- but each of us has a mission to change the world for the better. Each of us is given a unique responsibility and the task of using our gifts of mind and heart for lifting up the world. Yet it’s not so easy to
remain true to ourselves and our spiritual tasks when the world can push back with all kinds of pressures and distractions.

There is a famous story about Reb Zusya of Hanipol, who said that in Heaven, they wouldn’t ask him about why he wasn’t more like Moshe or Aharon- but why he wasn’t more like Zusya. “These are the same Moshe and Aharon”- they were fully engaged in the
needs of the community, but they retained their essential integrity and sense of a purpose greater than themselves. Nobody is ever going to ask why any of us aren’t more like Moshe- but all of us could stand to ask ourselves how we intend to be fully ourselves and
fully, consistently present in the task of fixing what’s broken, in ourselves and in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, the first link takes you to the text of the parsha and haftarah, and the second leads you to a page where you can find a summary of the parsha and additional commentaries:

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