“The Lessons of Genealogy”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, we learn of the noble family background of Moses and Aaron, who would soon emerge to lead the People of Israel to freedom, from the desperate bondage of Egypt.

Until this point, we literally know nothing of the origins of these great men. In fact, the information related thus far is entirely anonymous. In Exodus 2:1 the Torah states: וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֵוִי, וַיִּקַּח אֶת בַּת לֵוִי, an (anonymous) man from the house of Levi went and took the (anonymous) daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and gave birth to a son, whom she hid for three months. To save the child from certain death at the hands of the Egyptians, the mother had the child placed in a little ark in the river, only to be recovered by Pharaoh’s daughter. The child, who is named Moses, is nursed by his biological mother, but grows up in the palace of Pharaoh. Aside from his rescue, we know nothing of his family background.

Even after G-d reveals Himself to Moses at the burning bush, and informs him that his sacred mission is to bring the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, little is known about the man.

Interrupting the story of Moses, the Torah, quite unexpectedly, in Exodus 6:14, proclaims, אֵלֶּה רָאשֵׁי בֵית אֲבֹתָם, these are the heads of their fathers’ houses. Scripture then begins to present the genealogy of Jacob’s family, starting with a rather routine genealogy of Jacob’s eldest sons, Reuben and Simeon.

However, when the Torah reaches the genealogy of the children of Levi, the listings become more detailed and specific. In Exodus 6:16, the Torah states, וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי לֵוִי לְתֹלְדֹתָם גֵּרְשׁוֹן וּקְהָת וּמְרָרִי, וּשְׁנֵי חַיֵּי לֵוִי שֶׁבַע וּשְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה, these are the names of the sons of Levi in order of their birth; Gershon, Kohath and Merari; the years of Levi’s life were 137 years. This is followed by a detailed listing of the grandchildren of Levi. Only then does the Torah state that Amram and Jocheved were the parents of Aaron and Moses. As part of this detailed genealogy, mention is made of the great-grandson of Levi, whose name is Phinehas.

Although we might expect that all twelve tribes of Israel and their genealogies would be recorded, the Torah abruptly stops at Levi. In Exodus 6:26, the Torah states the apparent reason for recording this genealogy, הוּא אַהֲרֹן וּמֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר אָמַר השׁם לָהֶם, הוֹצִיאוּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם עַל צִבְאֹתָם, this is Aaron and Moses to whom G-d said, “Take the Children of Israel out of Egypt according to their legions.” In other words, this lengthy family history is recorded only to introduce Moses and Aaron, and to feature to all their noble background.

The Malbim explains this unusual introduction by citing a lovely parable. The Malbim teaches that it is the practice of scripture to quickly record what is not essential, and then focus with greater detail on what is truly important. The Malbim compares this to a person who, after losing a precious pearl in the sand, quickly sifts through the sand, throwing the discarded sand aside until he finds the pearl. Similarly, the Torah quickly disposes of Reuben and Simeon, recording only their most direct descendants–their children. When the Torah reaches the family of Levi, where the “pearl” is to be found, the Torah then goes into greater familial detail.

Rashi notes that the 137 years of the life of Levi are recorded, but not the years of the life of Reuben and Simeon, to teach that not only did Levi live longer than any of the other sons of Jacob (Exodus 6:16), but that as long as Levi was alive, the enslavement did not begin.

The May’am Lo’ez notes that Moses and Aaron came from a very special family, descended from the noble stock of Levi. Levi himself was a special person whose greatest attribute was concern for others. The May’am Lo’ez notes that even though the tribe of Levi was exempt from working as slaves (Midrash Tanchuma, Exodus 6), they nevertheless felt compelled to participate in the suffering of the other tribes. This, says the May’am Lo’ez, is evident from the names that Levi gives his sons, reminding them that although they were not enslaved like the others, they too are part of a bitter exile. The name “Gershon” recalls the fact that they are strangers in a strange land. “Kohath” reflects the fact that the tribe of Levi felt the travail of the people of Israel, making their teeth stand on edge. “Merari” expresses the fact that even though they were exempt from slavery, their lives are very much embittered.

The May’am Lo’ez emphasizes that this lesson is a lesson for all to learn, and that even though, at times, one may personally feel free and secure, one must always participate in the pain of the collective community. When others are in distress, one must not say that “I will be secure,” since all of Israel are brothers. Even though one has ample resources, one must never personally delight at a time when large numbers of community members are suffering from depravation.

It is interesting to note that Moses learned the lesson of participating in communal pain very well from his noble ancestors. Even though young Moses grew up in the palace of Pharaoh, he soon went out to see the travail of his people, Israel.

In his later years, Moses displayed that same quality of feeling communal pain. When the Israelites were battling the wicked Amalekites (Exodus 17:12), the Torah notes that Moses’ hands became heavy. To relieve Moses from his discomfort, his attendants took a stone and put it under him for him to sit on. Is it possible that Moses did not have a single pillow on which to sit? Rather, we learn from this, that Moses said, “As long as the People of Israel are in distress, I will also place myself in distress.” It is a well-known principle, recorded in Taanit 11a, that those who share in the distress of the community will merit to see the consolation of the community.

As the Ultimate Source of compassion, the Al-mighty Himself makes certain to participate in the pain of the People of Israel. The famed concept of שְׁכִינְתָּא בְּגָלוּתָא, (Megillah 29a) the Divine Presence is in exile, expresses the notion that when the People of Israel are exiled and dispersed, the Divine Presence of G-d Al-mighty Himself joins in the exile, and suffers together in the dispersion with His beloved people, Israel.

May you be blessed.