Home > Divrei Torah > Va’era


March 23, 2006

By Heidi Hoover

In this week’s parashah we begin with God’s reassurance to
Moses that God is El Shaddai, the same One who appeared to Abraham,
Isaac, and Jacob, and that God will indeed free the Israelites. This
appears to be in order to restore Moses’ confidence in God. That
confidence (which was always shaky anyway) doesn’t seem entirely
restored, because when God then reiterates the command to Moses that he
should go and speak to Pharaoh, Moses again protests that his oratory
abilities are not up to the job. As a result, Aaron is sent along with

Then there is an interruption in the narrative flow, where the
families of three of the Israelite tribes’Reuven, Simeon, and Levi’are
listed. After this partial genealogy, the narrative continues to what
is probably one of the most familiar parts of the Torah’the plagues
brought down on Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The first seven
plagues’blood, frogs, lice, insects (or wild beasts), cattle disease,
boils, and hail’are described in Va’era. The remaining three are in next week’s parashah.

I’m going to focus on the genealogy that appears in Va’era.
It gives us the names of Reuven’s and Simeon’s sons, but members of
five generations of Levi’s descendants are given, showing that the
focus of this genealogical interlude is the tribe of Levi. The primary
point is that the Moses and Aaron who are listed as great-grandchildren
of Levi are in fact the same Moses and Aaron who are God’s
representatives in the current narrative. Last week, in parashat Shemot,
we read of Moses’ birth, but no name was given for either his father or
his mother. We were told only that they were both Levites. Similarly,
when Moses first meets God in Shemot, God introduces Godself as the God
of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but is a little vague as to God’s name,
saying, ‘Eh-yeh asher Eh-yeh,’ ‘I Am That I Am.’ It is in this week’s parashah
that we find elaboration on both counts. We now find out exactly how
Moses and Aaron descend from Levi, and we are told that the God who is
speaking to Moses is the One known to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El
Shaddai. In the Torah, showing how a person is connected to his
ancestors is always important. So, just as Moses’ confidence in God
needed to be bolstered with the assurance that God is indeed the God of
the Patriarchs, we need to know where Moses and Aaron come from.

However, the listing of Levi’s descendants doesn’t stop with Moses
and Aaron. It continues two generations further to Pinchas, who is to
become the third High Priest (after Aaron and Elazar). This connects
Moses and Aaron not only to the past of the Israelites, but also to
their future. The Torah is assuring us of the continuity from Levi, son
of Jacob, through Moses and Aaron to the High Priests. And if we are to
get there, we must be confident that God will bring the Israelites out
of Egypt to be God’s people, as promised.

There is more that we can learn from the emphasis in this parashah on Moses and Aaron’s ancestry. In Genesis 49, parashat Vayehi,
Jacob gives his final blessings to his sons. In that passage, Jacob
says of Levi and Simeon, ‘Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their
wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in
Israel.’ This is because of their leadership in the vengeful massacre
of Shechem after the rape of Dinah, for which they were unrepentant
when rebuked by their father. It seems surprising, then, that Moses and
Aaron, and the line of High Priests, are descended from Levi. How is it
that those in the holiest position, and those charged with the care of
the Temple, should be descended from one of the most vengeful, violent,
and impulsive of Jacob’s sons?

There is a message here of consequences, redemption, and of God’s
help for us. We must note that the tribe of Levi did not receive land
in Eretz Yisrael. Though they were given the great responsibility and
honor of caring for the Temple and the priests, the consequence of
landlessness for Levi’s behavior was not reversed. However, the fact
that the Levites were given the honor of caring for the Temple, and
that the kohanim (priests) came from their ranks, shows that there can be redemption in future generations.

From what we know about future behavior of those mentioned in the genealogy in our parashah,
we can see that the violent, rebellious tendencies of Levi live on in
at least some of his descendants. Korah is named; he leads a revolt
against Moses and Aaron in Numbers 16 and is swallowed up by the earth.
Nadab and Abihu are included; they bring ‘alien fire’ as an offering to
God and are consumed in flame in Leviticus 10. Finally Pinchas is
named. He is the one member of the fifth generation after Levi who is
mentioned. In Numbers 25, we’re told that the Israelites are committing
harlotry with Moabite women and worshipping the Moabite god. Pinchas is
the one who, in a spectacularly violent moment, kills an Israelite man
and a Moabite woman who are intimate with one another in front of the
altar. God’s response is to credit Pinchas with saving the Israelites
from God’s wrath by taking ‘impassioned action for his God’ (Num.
25:13). Pinchas’s act was not vengeance or rebellion’it was violence in
the service of God and in the face of evil.

I must note here I am not an advocate of violence as a response to
social problems. We must remember that the world of the Torah is a very
different world from the one we live in, and to apply our values to the
violence we see there may not be productive. So what can we learn from
the violence of Levi and his descendants down to Pinchas?

Our rabbis teach that we are born with both a yetzer ha-ra and a yetzer ha-tov,
an evil inclination and a good inclination. We may think that the evil
inclination should be eradicated in favor of the good one, but the
rabbis say no. We need both, each to keep the other in check. When we
read the genealogy of Levi in this week’s parashah, we remember
that Levi gave in to his evil inclination and committed violence for
revenge and responded defiantly to his father when rebuked for his
action. Five generations later his descendant Pinchas also committed
violence, and we see the evil inclination, rather than being entirely
suppressed, can and should be channeled in a way approved by God. And
in between Levi and Pinchas we find Moses and Aaron, and we see that in
a family with a strong inclination to violence and rebellion, there is

May we take comfort, hope, and strength from this as we each strive to channel our yetzer ha-ra to become our own greatest selves and serve God with passion. Shabbat shalom.