“The Trials of Being a Public Figure”
(Revised and updated from Bamidbar 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, we encounter a particularly intriguing verse concerning Moses and his relatives.

Numbers 3:1 states: וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת אַהֲרֹן וּמֹשֶׁה, בְּיוֹם דִּבֶּר השׁם אֶת מֹשֶׁה בְּהַר סִינָי, And these are the offspring of Aaron and Moses on the day that G-d spoke with Moses at Mount Sinai. The following verse, Numbers 3:2, records the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadav, Abihu, Elazar and Itamar. The Torah then recalls that two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, died before G-d when they offered up a strange fire. Yet, even though the Torah clearly stated that “these are the offspring of Aaron and Moses,” nowhere is there any mention made of Moses’ own two children, Gershom and Eliezer.

Those who studied the book of Exodus carefully may have already sensed Moses’ apparent problematic relationship with his children.

At the Burning Bush, G-d tells the reluctant Moses that he must lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and shows Moses the signs and miracles that Moses was to perform before Pharaoh. Exodus 4:20, relates that Moses 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.

Exodus 4:24 reports that a very strange thing occurred on that journey. וַיְהִי בַדֶּרֶךְ בַּמָּלוֹן וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ השׁם וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ , “and on his way to the inn, G-d encountered Moses, and He [G-d] wanted to kill Moses.” Moses’ wife, Tziporah, quickly takes a flint stone, cuts off her son’s foreskin and says to the child: חֲתַן דָּמִים לַמּוּלֹת , “You [my son] caused my bridegroom bloodshed,” as if to say that the child had endangered her husband Moses, almost costing him his life.

This perplexing episode is elucidated by the commentaries, who explain that shortly before they left Midian to go to Egypt, a child was born to Moses and Tziporah. Moses felt that the mission to save the Jews was so urgent that he left Midian without circumcising his newborn child, Eliezer. G-d encounters Moses at the inn, and through a near-death experience, conveys a message to Moses, “You may not neglect your own family in the name of the salvation of all Israel. Your first responsibility is to circumcise your child. In fact, had it not been for Tziporah’s quick action, you, Moses, would have died!”

Does Moses learn from this experience?

According to tradition, unfortunately no. In Judges 17, we are told the story of Micha, a man from the hill country of Ephraim that underscores how corrupt Jewish life had become in the time of the Judges. “Everyone did what was correct in his own eyes.”

Micha receives a gift from his mother, which was actually money he had 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 kidnap the priest and steal Micha’s entire sanctuary, and relocate him in their new home up north in the tribal territory of Dan. Poor Micha is left bereft of all, and penniless.

The Bible says that the Levite, who served as Micha’s priest and ultimately betrayed him, was named Y’honatan ben Gershom ben Menashe. The name Menashe is written in Hebrew with an elevated letter “nun,” as if to indicate that the letter doesn’t belong there. Tradition teaches that Y’honatan’s grandfather’s name should not be Menashe, but rather Moshe–Moses. This Midrashic tradition implies that, at least with one of his children, Moses failed as a father. This, of course, is reinforced by the story of Miriam who seemingly criticizes Moses (Numbers 12) for apparently abandoning his wife and taking a Cushite woman. When scripture in our parasha states, “These are the offspring of Aaron and Moses,” and names only the offspring of Aaron, it is because, tragically, not all of Moses’ children remained loyal to the Jewish people.

On the other hand, there is a truly heartening message from this very same text. The commentators ask: Why does scripture state that these are the children of Aaron and Moses, and not just say these are the children of Aaron? How can the Torah list the children of Aaron as the offspring of Moses? In response, the commentator Rashi insists that the sons of Aaron are called the offspring of Moses because he taught them Torah. It is from this very verse that we learn the well-known principle (Tractate Sanhedrin 19b) that one who teaches his neighbor’s children Torah, scripture considers it as if he bore them. This fascinating principle implies that while the teacher may not necessarily be the biological parent of the student, a teacher is to be regarded as a spiritual parent. Therefore, Moses had, of course, many, many spiritual progeny.

This principle also serves to convey a very important fundamental lesson of Judaism. While there are those who, unfortunately, are not blessed with biological children of their own, they can still be parents–spiritual parents. Through this lesson, the Torah teaches that anyone who supports Jewish education, who supports the study of Torah, is considered a spiritual parent to all those who benefit from that support.

In this particularly rich parasha we see a full panoply of the vicissitudes of human life. On the one hand, the great leader, Moses, was not able, or perhaps not destined, to keep all his children in the fold. On the other hand, Moses was most fortunate to be a very great teacher to many, many others.

This parasha also teaches that a public person always has to live with the great challenge of balancing one’s own life with the needs of the public or community. Remarkably, the Torah doesn’t shy away from the fact that even our greatest teacher and leader may have been unsuccessful with his own child. The Torah forthrightly shares that uncomfortable information, so that we may learn from that unfortunate situation, and help us avoid repeating that mistake with our own families.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The wonderful festival of Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3331 years ago, is observed this year on Saturday evening, June 8th, and continues through Monday night, June 10, 2019.

Chag Shavuot Samayach. Have a happy and festive Shavuot.