Torah portion invites close reading, deep thinking

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

By Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

Parashat Vaera, which will be read this coming Shabbat in Jewish communities the world-over, opens with God preparing Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our great teacher, to encounter/confront the Pharaoh of Egypt, and ends with the graphic description of the Makkot, the horrifying plagues, which reigned down with destructive force upon the people and the land of Egypt.

A close reading of our Sidra reveals an oddity — one that bears mention as it provides an opportunity for a “Darshayni Moment,” a chance to think deeply about ideas that are often alluded to, but not explicitly mentioned in our sacred scripture. Just before describing the plagues, the Torah lays out the lineage of Moshe and Aharon, going all the way back to Levi, the third son of Yaakov Avinu, Jacob our patriarch. This genealogy concludes with an affirmation that the Moshe and Aharon mentioned in this section of our text are the very same Moshe and Aharon who were appointed by the Almighty to redeem the B’nai Yisrael from Egyptian bondage and servitude. 

As the Torah states (Shemot 6:26 & 27): “It is the very 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 very same Moshe and Aharon.” 

This apparent genealogical disruption in the midst of the flow of our text, creates a direct link between the meager Hebrew family that first made its way down to Egypt — the B’nai Yisrael – with the significantly expanded Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel, that will eventually be miraculously emancipated from Egyptian slavery and inherit the Promised Land. Moreover, this apparent digression firmly places Moshe, who was raised as a Prince of Egypt, as a genuine and bona-fide member of the House of Israel and thus, possesses both the legitimacy and gravitas to lead the nascent Israelite People.

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Chazal, our ancient Rabbis and teachers, were not only interesting in the Peshat, the most direct and straightforward textual understandings. Rather they yearned to find deeper ethical, moral and psycho-spiritual insights in each and every line, (word, letter, jot and tittle!) of sacred writ. The use of unique language or the obvious repetition of particular words or phrases, peaked the curiosity of the Sages and catalyzed their quest for deeper and ever-more nuanced meanings of Torah.

Commenting on our above mentioned passage, Rashi, the great medieval exegete, takes note of the repetition of the words “Moshe and Aharon.” He muses: If we know that this Moshe and Aharon are the same men as those who were originally commissioned by God, why do we need to be reminded that these are the same leaders who we encounter in this week’s drama? Referencing the Talmud, Rashi clarifies that the words “the same Moshe and Aharon” are a statement about their essential natures, not their public identities. “These are the same Moses and Aaron” therefore means that Moshe and Aharon remained committed to their righteousness God-given mission from its beginning to its end. 

Rashi’s Midrashic comments take us from a straightforward history of a single family to an ideal of human self-awareness and resoluteness that should be emulated by all — even in the face of tremendous challenges. After all, Moshe and Aharon had been commissioned directly by The Holy One of Blessing, and were exposed to Divine signs and wonders so powerful and profound that they gave Moshe and Aharon the energy to confound the most powerful leader and the greatest empire of its time. Yet, remarkably, despite glimpsing the marvelous handiwork of the Divine, Moshe and Aharon neither lost sight of their essential mission of liberating the people, nor did this epiphany cause them to become haughty, arrogant or intoxicated with their own importance.

Few if any of us are (or ever will be) called upon directly by God to confront and battle against a tyrant like the vile Pharaoh of Egypt. Nonetheless, each of us has a God-given responsibility to help make our world, at very least, incrementally better. This challenging road to catalyzing and facilitating goodness, helping bring about a more wholesome world, is fraught with challenges. Chief amongst them is the fortitude to remain steadfastly and unwaveringly committed – as Moshe and Aharon did – to our essential mission and our essential selves. Encoded in the Torah’s ingenious – yet somewhat obfuscated — syntax is the calling to remain vigilant and unyielding in this most noble quest. May the words of our Torah Portion, this and every week, gives us the inspiration, strength and courage to do so! Our world needs us now more than ever.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose is the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair of Congregation B’nai Amoona and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.