This Week's Torah Portion: Moses's 'Spiritual Sons'

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Dëvar Torah – Parashath BëMidbar (Numbers I, 1-IV, 20)

With this week’s parasha begins the fourth of the Chamisha Chumshei Torah. As always, its customary Jewish name is derived from the first significant word in the first verse:

Vayëdabbér Ha-Shem el Moshe bëMidbar Sinai …  

And Ha-Shem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai desert …

BëMidbar’s English name, Numbers, is a translation of the name assigned to the book by the rabbinical translators of the Septuagint, based on the then-current name Chumash Pëqudim (“The Book of Censuses”, cf. Sota 36a), so called because of the Divinely ordained censuses which bracket the book. The first of these begins in our parasha.

The census first takes account of “kol zachar … miben ‘esrim shana vama‘la kol yotzé’ tzava’ bëYisra’él (“every male … aged twenty years and up, everyone who goes out to the army in Israel … ”, I, 2-3). In each case, the nasi’ (“president”) of each shevet (“tribe”) is identified, and the members of each shevet marshaled behind him by family.

VëhaLëviyyim lo’ hothpaqdu bëthoch bënei Yisra’él ka’asher tzivva Ha-Shem eth Moshe …

And the Leviyyim were not marshaled among the bënei Yisra’él as Ha-Shem had commanded Moshe … (II, 22).

Shevet Lévi, singled out for Divine service in the Mishkan and as the prime repository of Torah in Israel, were not counted among the yotzë’ei tzava’. As in the words of the Ha‘améq Davar, as anshei chayil hayoshëvim ‘al haséfer (“men of valor who sit over the books”), their contribution to Israel’s security would be of a different order.

The census of the Levitical families is prefaced by:

Vë’élle tolëdoth Aharon uMoshe bëyom dibber Ha-Shem eth Moshe bëHar Sinai. Vë’élle shëmoth bënei Aharon habëchor …  

And these are the descendants of Aharon and Moshe on the day Ha-Shem spoke with Moshe on Mt. Sinai. And these are the names of Aharon’s sons, the first-born … (III, 1-2; cf. the Ba‘al haTurim ad loc., who demonstrates that habëchor refers to Aharon).

We expect, then, to find Moshe’s sons somewhere in the initial paragraph.

As the bëchor, Aharon’s name comes first, and we are not surprised that his four sons immediately follow, but after discussing them and their installation in the këhunna, we suddenly find the general command to marshal the Leviyyim and assign them to their tasks: “Haqrév eth matté Lévi … “ (“Bring close the staff of Levi … ”, ibid., 5). We know from Exodus XVIII, 3-4 that Moshe’s two sons, Gershom and Eli‘ezer, had joined Israel with their mother, Tzippora, at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

Why do they not find mention here?

Furthermore, it is hard to see how the phrase bëyom dibber Ha-Shem eth Moshe bëHar Sinai is relevant here. It is not a historical reference; as the beginning of our parasha makes clear, the census took place “bë’echad lachodesh hashéni bashana hashénith lëtzétham mé’eretz Mitzrayim” (“on the first of the second month of the second year of their exodus from the land of Egypt”), i.e. 1 Iyyar 2449, almost eleven months after Mattan Torah. The phrase seems extraneous.

Rashi was plainly bothered by this passage, as he notes: “The verse only mentions Aharon’s sons.”

He proposes to deal with it by reference to an idea which recurs frequently in Talmudic literature (cf. e.g. Sanhedrin 19b, 99b, and Sifrei Va’Ethchannan 9): “And they are called the descendants of Moshe because he taught them Torah, which teaches that anyone who instructs his fellow’s son in Torah, the verse credits him as though he had sired him.”

But this noble sentiment does not seem to address the question. Surely Moshe taught Torah to his own children as well as Aharon’s. Come to that, Moshe taught Torah to all of Israel; by Rashi’s definition, are not all of Israel tolëdoth Moshe? Why are Aharon’s sons singled out?

A number of our classic commentators have wrestled with this problem. The Këlh Yaqar, for example, posits a special relationship between Moshe and Aharon’s two younger sons, El‘azar and Ithamar. He cites Deuteronomy IX, 20, where Moshe relates that, as a result of the incident of the Golden Calf, “Uvë’Aharon hith’annaf më’od lëhashmido” (“And at Aharon He became very angry, to destroy him”). Rashi defines this destruction in terms of destroying his children.

Moshe goes on to tell us how he prayed for Aharon on Mt. Sinai. As a result of Moshe’s intervention, when Nadav and Avihu erred in bringing “strange fire” in the Mishkan, only they were taken; Aharon, El‘azar, and Ithamar were spared. By their very existence they were thus very much tolëdoth Moshe, as a result of his efforts on Mt. Sinai.

The Sifthei Chachamim similarly posits a relationship between Moshe and Aharon’s surviving sons, but on different grounds. Certainly, he says, Moshe taught Torah to all of Israel, but this was in obedience to Ha-Shem’s commandment at Mt. Sinai: “Vayyomer Ha-Shem el Moshe, ‘Alé élai va’ettëna lëcha eth luchoth ha’even vëhaTorah vëhamitzva asher kathavti lëhorotham” (“And Ha-Shem said to Moshe, Ascend to Me and let Me give you the tablets of stone and the Torah and the commandments which I have written to instruct them,” Exodus XXIV, 12). The whole point of Moshe’s learning was in order to teach Israel.

However, the fact that Moshe took special pains to learn with El‘azar and Ithamar, despite the fact that he was not obligated to do so, (since that mitzva was incumbent on their father, Aharon), caused the verse to “credit him as though he had sired them.” They were tolëdoth Moshe because of the Torah he had learned on Mt. Sinai.

But both of these explanations, though ingenious, explain only why El‘azar and Ithamar might also be counted as Moshe’s sons. They do not explain why Moshe’s biological sons, with whom we can be sure he fulfilled the mitzva of vëshinnantam lëvanecha (“and you will teach them to your sons,” Deuteronomy VI, 7), are not included.

Both the Rashbam and the Ramban provide us with a clue. The Rashbam cites the explicit language of I Chronicles XXIII, 14: “Umoshe ish ha’Elo-him banav yiqqarë’u ‘al shevet haLévi” (“And the sons of Moshe, the man of G-d, were called out among the tribe of Levi”). Moshe’s sons constituted the entire membership of mishpachath ha‘Amrami (III, 27). ‘Amram had only two sons, Aharon and Moshe; since Aharon and his sons were separated from the rest of Levi, it follows that the entire population of the ‘Amrami family consisted of Moshe’s descendants.

The Bë’ér Moshe sees a deep meaning in the fact that they are identified thus indirectly, in a hidden fashion. He notes a cryptic remark of the Zohar on Exodus XVIII, 3, in which Gershom and Eli‘ezer are called shënei baneha (“her [Tzippora’s] two sons”): “And were they her sons and not Moshe’s sons?! But … baneha is certainly a word of truth,” III, 27). The rebbe elucidates this as meaning that baneha isa word of truth to teach us that Moshe our Teacher had no connection with sons who were of flesh and blood.” That is, Moshe was on such an incomparably high spiritual plane that his relationship with his two sons was no different than that with his “spiritual sons,” his students. It is to teach us this that Moshe’s sons are mentioned only in this hidden fashion.

In my humble opinion there is another lesson to be learned from this peculiar phraseology, one of special import now, on the last shabbath before Shavu‘oth. In Avoth IV, 13, we learn that Israel has been graced with three “crowns”: that of the këhunna, that of malchuth (“kingship”), and that of Torah. Of these, the first two are hereditary: to be a kohén, one’s father must be a kohén; to be a king, one must be a member of the royal family.

Only the crown of Torah is accessible to anybody who is willing to learn and apply himself.

It is to teach this truth, I believe, that only the spiritual tolëdoth Moshe, whose defining characteristic for all time was that he was rabbenu, teacher of Torah to all Israel, are mentioned by name in this parasha, which always occurs in close proximity to Shavu‘oth, zëman mattan Torathenu (“the season during which our Torah was granted”).