Moses and Aaron
“Whoever says something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world” In that spirit, I wish to present here some ideas from an outstanding sermon I heard last Shabbat at my local synagogue, Beit Boyer, from Rabbi Michael Melchior, our rabbi, leader of the Meimad movement, and former Knesset Member and Minister who, as a public figure, knows something about leadership, the topic discussed. I bring it below with some comments and elaborations of my own.
He began by asking about an anomaly in Parshat Vaera: immediately following the “four languages of redemption” and God’s command to Moses to go to Pharaoh to ask him to free the Israelites (thereby precipitating his refusal, and the ten plagues), there is a brief genealogical section (Exod 6:14-28), which interrupts the flow of the account of events, after which the Torah picks up where it has left off. (It shows that it is doing so by repeating almost verbatim in vv. 29-30 what is stated in vv. 10-12) The question is: What is the purpose of this passage, which is not a compete list of the offspring of all twelve sons of Jacob, but begins with Reuven and Shimon and then, after listing the clans of Levi and the parentage of Moses and Aaron, ends.
Rav Melchior suggested that the main purpose of this passage is to introduce, not Moses (although it does give the names of his parents, Amram and Yocheved, who in 2:1 are merely identified as “a Levite man” and “a daughter of Levi”), but Aaron. True, Aaron is briefly mentioned in Chs. 4 and 5 as going to meet Moses In the wilderness, as accompanying him to Pharaoh, and as talking to the Israelites with him. Here we are told in detail of his parentage, of his marriage to Elisheva bat Aminadav—who, unlike, Moses’ Midianate wife, was from within the Israelite nation; indeed, from one of the families of Judah—as well as the names of his children.
What is the point? Rav Melchior suggested that Moses and Aaron represent two very different, but complementary kinds of leadership. Moses was a prophet, a man of God, a visionary, one who, according to our tradition, enjoyed the highest degree of closeness to God possible for a human being. He frequently serves as an intermediary between God and the people; indeed, at times it is unclear whether he is more the people’s spokesman to God or God’s spokesman to the people; or, to phrase it differently, whether he is more “at home” among his fellow human beings or in the heavenly realm, almost like one of the angels.
As a result of Moses’ sublime spiritual level, he could not easily relate to ordinary people. He simply was not interested in the same things that they were. Incidentally, I occurred to me that this may explain a seeming contradiction in his character: namely, that he simultaneously extremely humble, yet subject to intense bursts of anger. Anger is often the result of an exaggerated ego, of a sense of self-importance, but in Moses’ case it would seem to stem from the exact opposite: intense devotion to an ideal, so much so that he was unable to comprehend how others could be more concerned with worldly things and less passionately committed than himself.
Aaron, by contrast, was a man of the people. He moved among them easily, he understood their soul, their troubles, and empathized with them, (At times too much so; witness his role in making the Golden Calf). Nor is he burdened by the ambiguities of Moses’ identity, who was seen by Yitro’s daughters as an “Egyptian man” (Exod 2:19), having grown up in the royal palace; unlike Moses, he marries within the tribe. He is described in Pirkei Avot as “loving peace and pursuing peace.” He is a reconciler—even, at times, according to a well-known midrash, telling white lies to bridge the gaps between people. Hence he was able to serve as a kind of intermediary between Moses and the people, as Moses’ “mouth” or “prophet” (see Exod 4:14-17; 7:1).
These complementary (or perhaps opposed?) roles may also be seen in Aaron’s function as priest, as against Moshe’s prophetic–teaching–rebuking role. The priesthood is, in a certain sense, more down-to earth, ministering to the peoples’ needs—for atonement and forgiveness, for reconciliation with God notwithstanding their all-too-human failures, for a ritual that expresses Divine acceptance and ignoring of their faults. There is also a kind of “fellowship” with God and with one another, symbolized by the shelamim, the wholeness-offerings.
In this week’s parashah, we read what is conventionally described as the first mitzvah n the Torah, Kiddush ha-Hodesh, the declaration and sanctifying of the new moon by means of observation, and the laws of Passover that come in its wake, Interestingly, this law is given to Moses and Aaron together: “this month shall be for you’all [plural]…” (Exod 12:1-2). It would be interesting to trace those places in which God addresses Moses alone, and those in which He addresses Moses and Aaron together, to try to discern some underlying pattern. (See my essay on a related point—the staff: is it Moses’ or Aaron’s? See HY XII: Hukat).
Thus, in Moses and Aaron, one might say, we find two complementary types of leadership: the one a visionary, who demands of the people that they excel themselves, that they overcome their natural limits, in pursuit of the ideal, holy society; the other a man of the people, a peacemaker, a solemn, ceremonial figure who softens the harshness and moralizing and uncompromising demands of the visionary. One without the other would be no good. If there were Aaron alone, you would have mediocrity; with Moses alone, life would be unbearable, with his unrelenting tension and demands. Thus, one might say, in all societies one needs these two types; no single individual can be the perfect, be-all leader.
Interestingly, in the Kabbalah Moses and Aaron are associated with the complementary pair of Sefirot, Netzah and Hod (in much the same way as the three patriarchs correspond to the triad of Hesed, Gevurah, and Tiferet). This pair is ess familiar to many people than are the other Sefirot. Art Green, in his Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow (pp. 52-54), describes Netzah and Hod as emerging out of Tiferet, “Splendor,” the seemingly conclusive synthesis and harmony of Hesed and Gevurah, which in fact generates a new polarity. Netzah, translated as “Triumph” or “Victory,” “celebrates… the belief that we can be triumphant over all enemies of perfection… that, having subdued anger and allowing love to flow in ways that nurture and do not destroy, wholeness itself seems within our grasp.” Paradoxically, the sense of inner balance and completeness of Tiferet can lead to a kind of triumphalism. Hod, by contrast, is “Beauty,” ”Gratitude,” or even “Admission” “Hod is the admission that we cannot do it all… that we must accept ourselves as we are, be grateful for life as it has been given… Netzah strives for transformation; it is the impatient force … that believes that we can accomplish anything… Hod is the other side of wisdom, the self that bows before the mystery of what is, that submits to reality and rejoices in doing so.” The relation between these two forces and the figures of Moses and Aaron, as described above, seems clear.
Interestingly, this motif is expressed in Western culture as well. The twentieth century composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) wrote an oratorio (later opera) entitled Moses and Aaron (Moses und Aron), in which he portrays the two brothers as holding very different outlooks. In essence, the conflict between the two is seen in terms of that between the idea and the image. Moses speaks of the “inability to grasp the boundless in an image.” In a central scene, Aaron defends his creation of the Golden Calf, accusing Moses: “When you make yourself solitary, you are thought dead. The people have long waited upon the word of your mouth from which rule and law spring, so I had to give it an image to look upon.” Moses, in response, insists that the people “must grasp the idea, it lives only for that.” Finally in the closing words of Act Two, Moses underlines yet again the realization of the idea: “Unrepresentable God. Unspeakable, many-meaning idea. Do you permit this interpretation? Dare Aaron, my mouth, make this image. Thus have I made myself an image—false, as an image can only be. Thus am I beaten.”
Schoenberg himself was a very interesting figure. Both as a composer, as a teacher, and as a theoretician, he was a major figure in modern music, breaking out of the traditional scales, first to atonality, then to a twelve-tone scale. Like many European Jews in his time and place, as a young man he converted to Christianity (what Heinrich Heine before him called the “entrance ticket to European culture”). But Schoenberg formally returned to Judaism in 1933—precisely, it would seem, in reaction to the growing anti-Semitism of the time; in the face, so to speak, of Hitler—an unusual step, for which he deserves much credit. Fortuitously, he was in France at the time of Hitler’s ascent to power, and he fled to the US, where he spent the rest of his life. In addition to Moses and Aaron, during this later period he composed his Kol Nidrei and other works on Jewish themes.