“The Risks of Being a Public Figure”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, we read a very intriguing verse (Numbers 3:1): “V’ay’leh tol’dot Ah’haron U’Moshe, b’yom dee’bayr Hashem et Moshe b’har Sinai,” Now these are the offspring of Aaron and Moshe on the day that G-d spoke with Moshe at Mount Sinai. The immediate following verse, verse 2, names the sons of Aharon: Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Itamar. The succeeding verses remind us that Nadav and Avihu died before G-d when they offered up a strange fire. But nowhere is there any mention of Moshe’s two children, Gershom and Eliezer.

Those who studied the Book of Exodus carefully may have already picked up an allusion to what may have very well been Moshe’s problematic relationship with his children. G-d had shown Moshe the signs and miracles that Moshe was to perform before Pharaoh, and instructed him to go to Egypt to save the People of Israel. Exodus 4:20 relates that Moshe takes his wife and children (notice it says “children”–plural), puts them on his donkey, and returns to Egypt with the staff of G-d in his hand. Then in verse 24 a very mystical thing happens. “V’yeh’hee b’derech b’ma’loan,” and on his way to the inn, “v’yif’g’shayhu Hashem,” G-d encounters Moshe, “v’y’va’kesh ha’mee’to,” and He (G-d) wanted to kill Moshe. Tzippora, Moshe’s wife, quickly takes a flint stone, cuts off her son’s foreskin and says to the child: “Chatan damim la’moo’lot,” You (my son) caused my bridegroom bloodshed, as if to say that the child had endangered Moshe, her husband’s, life.

This perplexing episode is explained by the commentaries. Shortly before they left Midian to go to Egypt, a child was born to Moshe and Tzippora. Moshe felt that the urgency to save the Jews was so great that he left Midian without circumcising his newborn child, Eliezer. G-d encounters Moshe at the inn and says to him, “You may not neglect your own family in the name of the salvation of all Israel. You have an obligation to circumcise your child. In fact, had it not been for Tzippora’s quick action, you, Moshe, would have died!”

Does Moshe learn from this near death experience? According to tradition, unfortunately no. In the Book of Judges, chapter 17, we learn of a man from the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Micha. Scripture records the story of Micha to show how corrupt Jewish life had become in the time of the Judges. Everyone did what was correct in their own eyes. Briefly: Micha gets a gift from his mother, which was actually money he had originally stolen from her, and at her behest, as a means of atonement, starts an idolatrous cult. Micha finds a Levite who will serve as the priest for his cult, and develops a thriving business. On their way to do battle in the North, members of the tribe of Dan consult with Micha’s “priest,” who encourages them and promises them success in battle. The Danites are so impressed with the “priest,” that on their way home from their successful war, they steal the “priest” and Micha’s entire sanctuary, and relocate him to their new home up north. Poor Micha is left bereft of all, and penniless.

The Bible says that the Levite, who served as Micha’s priest and betrayed him, was named Y’honatan ben Gershom ben Menashe. According to tradition, Y’honatan’s grandfather’s name should not be Menashe, but Moshe. This tradition implies that Moshe was a failure as a father, and that his entire progeny went astray. This, of course, is reenforced with the story of Miriam who seemingly attacks Moshe (Numbers 12) for abandoning his wife and taking a Cushite woman. So when scripture says in our parasha, “These are the offspring of Aharon and Moshe,” and names only the offspring of Aharon, it is because, tragically, Moshe’s children were lost to tradition.

There is, on the other hand, quite a heartening message from this very same text. The commentators ask: Why does scripture say that these are the children of Aharon and Moshe, and not just say these are the children of Aharon? How can the Torah list the children of Aharon as the offspring of Moshe? In response, the commentator Rashi says that the sons of Aharon are called the offspring of Moshe because he taught them Torah. From here we learn the well-known principle that anyone who teaches his neighbor’s children Torah, scripture considers it as if he bore them (Tractate Sanhedrin 19b). This incredible principle implies that while a teacher may not necessarily be a biological parent, teachers are to be regarded as spiritual parents. And of course, therefore, Moshe had many, many spiritual offspring.

This principle also serves as a very important fundamental lesson in Judaism. While there are people who are not blessed with biological children of their own, they can still very well be parents — spiritual parents. The Torah basically tells us that anyone who supports Jewish education, anyone who supports the study of Torah, is considered a spiritual parent to all those students.

In this one parasha we are able to see an entire panoply of the vicissitudes of life. On the one hand, the great leader, Moshe, was not able, or perhaps not destined, to keep his children in the fold, but he was fortunate to be a very great teacher to many, many others. A public person always has to live with this very great challenge — to balance one’s own life with the needs of the public. Remarkably, the Torah doesn’t shy away from the fact that even our greatest teacher may have been unsuccessful with his own children. The Torah forthrightly shares that uncomfortable information with us so that we may learn from that unfortunate situation and successfully avoid repeating that mistake with our own families.

May you be blessed.