This week’s Torah portion, is Va’ayra, Exodus 6:2-9:35.
This week’s reading includes the familiar story of the first seven of the 10 plagues visited upon Egypt. God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” and he refuses to allow the Israelites to leave.
The parsha has a vignette which does not appear in the Cecil B. DeMille film version. Moses, apparently, was no Charlton Heston. We read this in Ex. 6:12–13: “But Moses appealed to the Lord, saying, ‘The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech?’ So, the Lord spoke to both Moses and Aaron in regard to the Israelites and Pharaoh King of Egypt, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt.”
God has instructed Moses to go before Pharaoh and demand freedom for the Israelites. Moses, already derided by the Israelites for increasing their labors, now fears going to Pharaoh. God responds by instructing Moses to go with his brother, Aaron, who will serve as Moses’ spokesman. Why does Aaron suddenly become a key player in the biggest story in our Biblical history?
One can suggest that Aaron was, as the text states, an intermediary because Moses suffered from a speech impediment (perhaps, as midrash suggests, due to his choice as a child of a burning coal over a gem). But Aaron’s role is not limited to being an intermediary between Moses and Pharaoh; he is also an intermediary between Moses and the Israelites. Moses felt righteous indignation when observing a taskmaster abusing a Hebrew slave. However, he could not understand, in his heart, what slavery was all about, as he had not experienced it personally. Aaron, on the other hand, had personal knowledge of the tribulations imposed on the Israelites, and so Moses could use Aaron’s experience to cross the divide between the Israelites and himself.
Our Sages note Aaron’s outstanding characteristic is as a peacemaker; he could make the people listen when they refused Moses. Moses cannot do it alone; he needs the support of Aaron to lead the Israelites.
There is an interesting parallel we might consider. Contemporary American Jews have largely been raised, like Moses, in privileged circumstances. We have the ability to advocate on behalf of our Israeli brothers and sisters, yet we cannot feel in our hearts the depth of emotion and the trauma they feel caused by constant threats, wars and terrorism. The Moses-Aaron partnership shows that it is imperative for us to form a strong and close coalition with Israelis, on every level, and to remember that while we cannot feel precisely what Israelis feel, we can and must serve as their forceful advocates to others.
This episode also shows the need for unity in our own communities. Faith is not an individual search for truth and understanding for Jews. We do not have a significant tradition of solitary contemplation in a cave or on a mountaintop. We study texts jointly, in chevrutah. We daven together in a minyan. Our quest for faith in God is a communal one, made possible by the connections we create with our families and friends, teachers and all of our fellow Jews. Alone, life’s journey is difficult. Together, with God’s help, much is possible.
Questions for discussion
An alternative translation of Moses’ impeded speech is uncircumcised lips. Does this mean that Moses had a physical impairment, or might it be an emotional issue?
How can parents best instill a love of Israel in their children?
Gary D. Simms is a faculty member of Shoresh Hebrew High School and a former executive director of three congregations in the Washington area.