Brothers: A drama in five acts


It is interesting to note the absence of Moshe from the parsha of Tetzaveh. For once, Moshe, the hero, the leader, the liberator, the lawgiver, is off-stage, and the only instance where the name of Moshe is not mentioned at all in any parsha since the one in which he is born.

Instead, our focus is on his elder brother Aaron who, elsewhere, is in the background. Indeed, virtually the whole parsha is devoted to the role Moshe did not occupy: that of priest.

It is important that we have a parsha dedicated to priestly role. However, need this focus remove Moshe entirely? Is there any larger significance to his absence?

The commentators offer various suggestions. One given in the Talmud refers to Moshe’s encounter with G-d at the burning bush. Moshe repeatedly expressed reluctance to lead the people out of Egypt, saying, “O L-rd, please send someone else to do it.”

“Then the L-rd’s anger burned against Moshe and He said, ‘What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and his heart will be glad when he sees you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do’” (Exodus 4:13-15).

The Talmud records a debate about the consequences of that moment when Moshe, as it were, refused one time too many. To decline a leadership challenge once or twice is a sign of humility. To continue to do so when G-d Himself issues the challenge risks provoking divine anger.

“Then the L-rd’s anger burned against Moshe” — Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha said: every instance of [divine] anger in the Torah leaves a lasting effect, except in this instance. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: here too it left a lasting effect, for it goes on to say, ‘What about your brother, Aaron the Levite?’ Surely Aaron was a priest [not just a Levite]. Rather, what G-d meant was: I originally intended that you [Moshe] would be a priest and he [Aaron] would merely be a Levite. But now [because of your refusal], he will eventually become a priest and you will only be a Levite.”

According to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Moshe’s reluctance to lead meant that one leadership role — priesthood — would go to Aaron rather than him.

Based on this passage, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher suggests that Moshe’s name is missing from Tetzaveh “to spare him distress” on seeing Aaron acquire the priesthood that might have been his.

There is also a more fundamental message. One of the recurring themes of Genesis is sibling rivalry: between Cain and Abel, Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Esav, and Yosef and his brothers.

There is an identifiable pattern to this set of narratives. The story of Cain and Abel ends with murder. Yitzchak and Yishmael, though they grow up apart, are seen together at Abraham’s funeral. Yaakov and Esav meet, embrace and go their separate ways. Yosef and his brothers are reconciled and live together in peace, Yosef providing them with food, land, and protection.

Fraternity is not simple or straightforward. It is often fraught with conflict and contention. Yet slowly, brothers can learn that there is another way. On this note Genesis ends. But it is not the end of the story.

The drama has a fifth act: Moshe and Aaron. Here, for the first time, there is no hint of sibling rivalry. The brothers work together from the outset of the mission. They address the people together. They stand together when confronting Pharaoh. They perform signs and wonders together. They share leadership in the wilderness together. For the first time, brothers function as a team, with different gifts, talents, roles, but without hostility, each complementing the other.

Their partnership is a constant feature of the narrative. But there are certain moments where it is highlighted. The first occurs when G-d tells Moshe that Aaron “is already on his way to meet you, and his heart will be glad when he sees you.”

Aaron would have many reasons not to rejoice. The brothers had not grown up together. Moshe had been raised in an Egyptian palace, while Aaron remained with the Israelites. Moshe, fearing for his life after his assault on an Egyptian taskmaster, had fled to Midian.

Besides this, Moshe was younger, and yet it was he who was about to become the leader. In the past, when the younger had taken something the elder believed belonged to him, there was jealousy, animosity. Yet G-d assures Moshe: “when Aaron sees you, he will rejoice.” And so he did.

The second fascinating clue is in a strange passage that traces the descent of Moshe and Aaron: “Amram married his father’s sister Yocheved, who bore him Aaron and Moshe. Amram lived 137 years … It was this same Aaron and Moshe to whom the L-rd said, ‘Bring the Israelites out of Egypt by their divisions.’ They were the ones who spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt about bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. It was this same Moshe and Aaron” (Exodus 6:20, 26-27).

The repeated phrase, “It was this same,” is emphatic, even in translation. It is all the more so when we note two peculiarities of the text. The first is that the phrases place the names of the brothers in a different order: “Aaron and Moshe,” then “Moshe and Aaron.” Even more striking is the grammatical oddity of the phrase. Both times, the third person singular is used. Literally, they read: “He was Aaron and Moshe,” “He was Moshe and Aaron.” The text should have said “they” — all the more so since “they” is used in the middle of the passage: “They were the ones who spoke to Pharaoh.”

The implication is that they were like a single individual. There was no hierarchy between them: sometimes Aaron’s name appears first, sometimes Moshe’s.

There is a wonderful Midrash that bears out this idea, based on the verse in Psalms (85:11) “Loving-kindness and truth meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.”

“Loving-kindness — this refers to Aaron. Truth — this refers to Moshe. Righteousness — this refers to Moshe. Peace — this refers to Aaron.”

Moshe and Aaron were quite different. Moshe was the man of truth, Aaron of peace. Without truth, there can be no vision to inspire a nation. But without internal peace, there is no nation to inspire. Aaron and Moshe’s roles were in creative tension. Yet they worked side by side, respecting each other’s distinctive gift.