In last week’s episode, Moses was at loose ends. He went to Pharaoh and asked permission for the Israelites to go to the desert and worship God. The answer was not only No, but You Israelites must have a lot of time on your hands to feel you can just run out and worship your god; maybe you’re not working hard enough. Tell you what, keep the quota of bricks you’re producing for us but now you have to go get your own straw as well!
In this week’s episode, Vaeira, God has the temerity to demand that Moses go BACK to Pharaoh AGAIN to ask the same question. Was it Einstein that defined insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?
Moses complains that not only has he done no good for the Israelites, but he’s made things worse. Further, there’s still the issue of his speech impediment. As God commands both Moses and Aaron to approach Pharaoh -- the inclusion of Aaron as a nod to Moses’ speech challenge -- there’s a sudden and seemingly unnecessary intrusion, interruption, a truncated genealogy reciting the kids of Reuven, Shim’on and a more extended, in-depth description of Moses and Aaron’s descent from Levi.
Why? What’s it doing here? Etz Hayim posits that this is a literary device to separate the futile human intervention of Moses from the decisive plagues of God which ultimately lead to the freedom of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. But I still wonder about the content: Why a genealogy?
A few weeks ago, towards the end of the book of Genesis, the rabbis noted a mathematical difficulty. Jacob came down to Egypt with 70 members of his family. In adding up the kids and grandkids and even Joseph and his two children, the rabbis come up with only 69. A famous midrash posits that the 70th was Yocheved, Moses’ and Aaron’s mother, who was born ‘between the walls’, conceived in Canaan but born on the way to Egypt. According to this theory, her three kids were born when she was well over 100 years old, making Sarah look like a young soccer mom in comparison!
In a sense the genealogy is a reminder that Moses may derive his Egyptian credibility from his adoptive parents but he earns his ability to stand in for God from his biological yichus, specifically from the mother who not only saved his life but, thanks to the quick thinking and proactivity of his sister Miriam, was privileged to nurse him as well.
More importantly, Moses and his mother are both liminal characters, both born in circumstances placing them in between. He was born in Egypt but his youth was spent in the royal palace as an adoptive prince of Egypt. This makes both of them more able than others, with more defined and comfortable backgrounds, to perform as go-betweens in matters of existential consequence.
Shabbat is a weekly interruption of the dramas of our lives, a weekly signal that everything we took credit for in the week past may, with further reflection, be in part attributable to those things we may have received from our parents, adoptive or biological, from our families, friends or, indeed, from God.