“Moses: A Spiritual Father”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the third chapter of parashat Bamidbar we are told of the progeny of Moses and Aaron and about the appointment of the Levites instead of the first born to serve as the ministers of G-d.

Numbers 3:1 reads: “V’ay’leh tol’doht Aharon u’Moshe, b’yom dee’behr Hashem et Moshe, b’har Sinai,” These are the offspring of Aaron and Moses on the day that G-d spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. The Torah then proceeds to name the sons of Aaron, his firstborn Nadav, followed by Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar. We are then informed that Nadav and Avihu died before G-d when they offered up the strange fire, and that Elazar and Itamar ministered during the lifetime of Aaron, their father.

The commentators are immediately struck by the inconsistency in this verse. The Torah appears ready to announce the offspring of both Aaron and Moses, but only the offspring of Aaron are mentioned.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) states that the Torah lists Aaron’s offspring as if they were the children of Moses as well because Moses taught them Torah. To support this interpretation, Rashi cites the well-known Talmudic dictum from Sanhedrin 19b, “Sheh’kohl ha’m’la’meyd et ben cha’vay’ro Torah, ma’aleh a’lav ha’ka’toov k’ee’lu y’la’do,” that whoever teaches Torah to his friend’s child, Scripture considers it as if he had fathered that child. And since Moses was the primary teacher of Aaron’s sons, he is regarded as a joint parent.

Both the Ohr Hachayim (commentary on the Pentateuch by the famed Kabbalist and Talmudic scholar R’Chaim ibn Attar, 1696-1743) and the Kli Yakar (R’ Shlomo Ephraim Lunshitz, c.1550-1619, Rosh Yeshiva of Lemberg and Rabbi of Prague, author of a popular bible commentary) maintain that Moses came to be regarded as the father of Aaron’s sons at Mount Sinai since it was due to Moses’ prayers and intervention that Aaron and his family were spared by G-d and forgiven for Aaron’s participation in the sin of the Golden Calf.

The Torah Temimah (Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, 1860-1941) notes that in several instances in the Bible students are regarded as children based on the Sifrei’s interpretation of the verse (Deutoronomy 6:7), “V’shee’nan’tahm l’vah’neh’cha,” “and you shall teach your children,” to mean students. For example, the prophet Elisha calls his mentor Elijah, “My father, my father” (Kings II 2:12).

The Torah Temimah asks, Why are not all the Children of Israel considered the progeny of Moshe, after all, Moshe taught them all Torah? He suggests that Moses only taught the People of Israel general principles, but went into significantly greater detail of the law when he taught the Children of Aaron.

The late Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer provides a more in-depth answer to this question. Rabbi Firer suggests that Moshe was the Rav Muvhak (primary mentor) of Aaron and his sons, but not the primary mentor of the children of Israel. The Talmud in Baba Metzia 33a, citing Rabbi Judah, defines a primary mentor as anyone who transmits the majority of a person’s knowledge.

The Talmud, in Eruvin 54b, describes in fascinating detail the way that the “Torah sheh’b’al peh,” the Oral Law, was first transmitted:

Our rabbis learned: What was the procedure of instruction in the Oral Law? Moses learned [the Oral Law] from the mouth of the Omnipotent. Then Aaron entered, and Moses taught him his lesson. Aaron them moved aside and sat down on Moses’ left. Thereupon, Aaron’s sons entered and Moses taught them their lesson. His sons then moved aside, Elazar taking his seat on Moses’ right and Itamar on Aaron’s left. Rabbi Judah stated: Aaron was always on Moses’ right. Thereupon the elders entered and Moses taught them their lesson, and when the elders moved aside, all the people entered and Moses taught them their lesson. It thus followed that Aaron heard the lesson four times, his sons heard it three times, the elders twice, and all the people once. At this stage, Moses departed and Aaron taught them his lesson. Then Aaron departed and his sons taught them their lesson. His sons then departed and the elders taught them their lesson. It thus followed that everyone heard the lesson four times. From here Rabbi Eliezer inferred: It is a man’s duty to teach his pupil [his lesson] four times.

From this description we see that the children of Aaron learned the Torah from Moshe personally three out of four times, whereas the elders learned the Torah from Moses only twice, and the people only once. Since the children of Aaron learned the majority of their Torah from Moses, he is considered their primary mentor and is regarded as if he had given birth to them. The elders and the people of Israel, on the other hand, did not learn the majority of their Torah from Moses, and consequently he is not considered to be the People’s spiritual father.

This analysis begs the question: If Moses was indeed the primary teacher of the children of Aaron, why then does the verse read, “And these are the offspring of Aaron and Moses,” rather than, “these are the offspring of Moses and Aaron”? Moses, the primary teacher, should be listed first. After all, the primacy of the spiritual father is confirmed by the Mishnah in Baba Metzia 33a, which teaches:

If a man finds his own lost article and his father’s lost article, his own takes precedence. His father’s and his teacher’s, his teacher’s take precedence, because his father brought him into this world, whereas his teacher, who instructed him in wisdom, brings him to the future world. But if his father is a sage, his father’s takes precedence. If his father and his teacher were each carrying a burden, he must first assist his teacher to lay it down, and then assist his father. If his father and his teacher are in captivity, he must first redeem his teacher and then his father. But if his father is a sage, then he must first redeem his father and then his teacher.

Rabbi Firer explains that Aaron is mentioned first as the father of his own children even though Moses was their primary mentor, because of the Mishnah’s lesson “that if the father is a sage, [the lost article of the father] takes precedence.” Since Aaron himself was a sage, Aaron’s name is mentioned first. And even though Aaron did not measure up to Moses in wisdom, since he was a great scholar he still was considered the primary progenitor of his children.

Despite the fact that the Torah clearly states in Deuteronomy 6:7, “V’shee’nan’tahm l’vah’neh’cha,” that YOU shall teach your children, most parents rely on professional teachers to school their children. It is critical, however, to bear in mind that Jewish tradition expects parents to serve as their children’s primary role models and mentors. Despite Judaism’s great reverence for teachers, especially great teachers, they do not replace the need for great parents.

May you be blessed.

Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, is celebrated in the coming week on the 28th of Iyar, Sunday evening, June 1st and Monday, June 2nd.

Wishing you all a joyous Yom Yerushalayim.