Reading Parashat Shemot

Two chapters from Biblical Images by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz z”l are particularly illuminating for this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, where Aaron and Miriam — the siblings of Moses — are first introduced. Chapters 9 and 10 of the book are reproduced in full here.

Chapter 9 — Aaron: The People’s Prophet

It is customary to speak of Moses and Aaron1 together as the pair of redeemers who brought Israel forth from bondage in Egypt. In the Bible story itself, however, the figure of Moses is dominant. From the book of Exodus to the last page of the Pentateuch, Moses is connected with almost every phase of development: it is he who is the hero of the Exodus and the Torah. His brother, Aaron, appears as a secondary character, sometimes even less than that. At the same time, it is to be borne in mind that, historically, Aaron has had a more extended influence than his illustrious brother.

Moses was a great personality in himself, a special and unique phenomenon, with no equal or parallel. Israel has never tried to raise another Moses from its midst — even though great sages used to be called “like a Moses,” and in ancient synagogues, there used to be a special seat, the chair of Moses, in which the rabbi sat. Moses was considered the father of the prophets, of those who preceded him and those who came after him. Nevertheless, all of these notions were metaphorical: there can be no real replica or imitation of Moses. Even his sons remain the stuff of legends.

Aaron, on the other hand, was the head of a line, father of a long succession of priests, who were called the sons of Aaron and constitute a vital part of the Jewish people for all time. When the Holy Temple still stood, the priests were certainly the core of the nation. But even afterward, the tribe of priests stood apart from the others and were actively engaged in the spiritual and intellectual life of the people to a degree disproportionate to their numbers. The sons of Moses vanished from sight; the sons of Aaron became a permanent feature of national existence. From this point of view, the contribution of Moses as a leader may have been inestimably great and world-shaking. But the one who remained as a living influence for generation upon generation was Aaron, the lesser of the pair of redeemers.

The endeavor to penetrate the character and personality of Aaron is, thus, far more complex than with any ordinary secondary biblical figure. After all, he is an archetype, a model of priests for all generations. The chief ideal of priests in Israel, during and after the Temple period, was to be a disciple of Aaron and to maintain the tradition he established. Consequently, as high priest or as head of the priesthood, Aaron acquired many accomplishments and noble virtues deserving the adulation of the keepers of the sacred rituals. Much of it was founded in reality. On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), a hymn is till recited about the glory of the priest, a hymn full of praise and veneration and based on a passage from the book of Ben-Sira (Ecclesiasticus), concerning a real high priest who was a contemporary of his. Even more significant is the sentence in the book of Malachi: “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of Hosts” (2:7). The priest, thus, became the symbol of one who “loves peace and pursues peace, who loves people and brings them to the Torah,” a teacher of the common folk, a guide and support. In short, the priest was not merely a functionary who performed rituals; he was a teacher of the people and had a broad and vital part to play in the community. And this archetypal image was established by Aaron.

The Bible portrait itself, aside from the legendary additions of later generations, is revealing. Nevertheless, the insights of the accumulated literature help us to discern the complementary relationship between Moses and Aaron. For instance, in the many allegorical descriptions of Israel as the bride and God as the bridegroom, with the Revelation at Mount Sinai as the wedding, Aaron is the one who gives the bride away, while Moses is the one who leads the groom to the wedding canopy.

Moses and Aaron represent two kinds of leader. The difference between them only reinforced the bond, cemented an alliance and a lasting friendship. At the same time, Moses never could descend altogether from the higher sphere; he did not even try to be liked or understood by the people. His whole essence, from the start of his career, was one of aloofness, almost that of the stranger or the one who comes from above. As the Torah commentator Avraham Ben Ezra put it, “It was decreed in heaven that Moses should grow up in the royal household so that he could appear to the people as a king.”

Aaron, however, was not only the assistant or the translator. True, he did provide Moses with help and support, but he was also a leader in his own right, as is apparent from any scrupulous reading of the text. He was the popular chief, one of the tribe, a Levite, and a spokesman. Because he understood the people and sympathized with their shortcomings, he could guide them toward a goal that Moses had reached in a different way. Moses operated from the higher to the lower: he was the authority figure, giving orders and hardly ever explaining or educating. Aaron, on the other hand, functioned from the lower to the higher, trying to lead the people carefully, teaching and guiding them.

This difference between the two approaches may shed some light on the shameful episode of the Golden Calf. In this incident, Aaron cooperated with the sinners and even fashioned the Golden Calf — the worst failure of his career. One may, however, regard the matter in another light, recalling that, even in the Bible account, Aaron was put into a painful situation not unlike the one encountered by Moses later when he came down from the mountain. The main difference between them is that Moses had clear authority from above and could destroy the Golden Calf, overawe the main culprits, and even kill many of them. Aaron could do none of these things; he had no such authority from above. His authority came from below, from the people; and he was compelled to do their bidding. What he endeavored to do in this predicament was to raise popular sentiment into something more subtle and noble and more in keeping with his own concepts. When he agreed to cooperate in the casting of the Golden Calf, he was undoubtedly proceeding along his own mode of leadership — given to compromise and acquiescence — with the accompanying perils of “distorting the truth for the sake of peace.”

So was the pattern of Aaron’s personality fixed for the ages: “One who lives in peace, and pursues peace, loves the people and brings them Torah.” There are many legends in various sources that describe him as trying to make peace between parties and people, using all possible means — whether legal or underhand, fair or unfair — all in order to achieve the most desirable of ends, “harmony between man and his neighbor, between man and wife.”

The role of popular leader also imposed on Aaron in the responsibility of acting as intermediary between the people and God. And later this responsibility did become the outstanding function of his sons, the priests. But in Aaron, himself, it was an intrinsic aspect of his personality: that is to say, he was both a vehicle of the people’s will and able to draw from Moses something of the special authority and power from above. It is this aspect that makes him a messenger of God, a priest of the Lord. Hence, the eternal dual task of the priest: to serve as functionary in the Temple, manifesting and expressing the Holy to the people, and to serve as intermediary for the people before God.

Essentially, then, Aaron was a beloved man of the people. As the sages have pointed out, there is a significant but subtle difference in the way the nation mourned for each of this pair of redeemers. Concerning Aaron, it is written: “And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they mourned for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel” (Numbers 20:29). Whereas concerning the death of Moses, it is written: “And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the lowlands of Moab thirty days” (Deuteronomy 34”8). In other words, the mourning for Moses was a national, official ceremony; the mourning for Aaron was an expression of grief by all the houses and persons of Israel, big and small, men and women, each one being bound up in a specific way with the personality of Aaron.

To be sure, Aaron was more than just a popular leader close to the hearts of the folk; he was also a prophet — and he was a prophet even before Moses became one. He was the prophet of the Children of Israel in Egypt and, in this sense, created the background and basis for the people’s later acceptance of the priestly elite. For many generations, the priest dealt with more than the ceremonial functions of religion: he was judge, teacher, guide. True, the priestly tasks listed in the book of Malachi are specified in the Torah itself, but they are more in the nature of peripheral comments. The clear image of what the priest should be was, for all time, the example set by the specific personality of Aaron, the son of Amram.

Of course, one may also remember the shortcomings and failures of the man: the ignominious affair of the Golden Calf, the offensive, evil talk with his sister, Miriam, against Moses, their brother. Both these incidents only confirm the view of Aaron as a man of the people — a priest, but not a holy man. He was not a man from another realm, from somewhere else. He did not even pretend to have come from beyond Israel; and. In spite of his splendid attire as high priest and the grandeur of his function, Aaron remained an integral part of the tribal culture. In fact, the closer the bond between priest and people, the stronger the position of the priestly class.

It is likely that the most magnificent period of the priests was in the time of the Second Temple. During the period of the First Temple, the functionaries in the Holy Temple always had to have the support of royal authority, and their power and glory was connected with that of the house of David; whereas, during the first half of the period of the Second Temple, the actual political sovereignty of the nation and all the real power lay with the high priest. And even afterward, when the secular kingdom was established, it was the priestly family of the Hasmoneans who held the power. Although the Maccabees were not of the highest rank, the fact that they were of the hereditary priesthood carried considerable weight. It expressed the warm and vital relation between the people of Israel and the class of the priests. Even the eventual fall of this consecrated aristocracy was connected with the fact that they were too closely involved iwth the various currents and forces operating among the common people.

What is important for an understanding of the personality of Aaron is the undiminished vitality of the connections he established with all the various sections of the nation. Always the angel-messengers of God and the human teacher-guides of men, the priests filled the role of Aaron for centuries. And whenever the high priest forgot that he was not only the emissary of God but also the liaison with the Children of Israel, there was a crisis, in the priesthood as well s in the nation — a crisis that was usually decried as a repudiation of the true role of the sons of Aaron.

Hence, when, in the course of history, a priest ceased to be a true disciple of Aaron and concentrated on remaining only a biological heir, he ceased to be a leader in Israel. Even though he continued to be a member of the tribe of priests and Levites and played his role in the holy service, once the example and tradition set by Aaron was severed, the priest lost his place as a leader of the community. Those leaders who did arise in time were men who followed the way of Aaron, whether they were his direct descendants or came from other tribes of Israel.

1. Exodus 4:14-16, 4:27-31, 6:13-9:12, 17:8-13, and 32:1-35.


Chapter 10 — Miriam: The Big Sister

The exodus from Egypt was marked by the leadership of the three children of Amram — Moses, Aaron and Miriam2; and wherever they are mentioned in the Bible or in the writings of the sages, there is a tendency to refer to them as one unit. Different as they were in character, personality and role, the three are inextricably bound together in a way that exceeds the ties of family or generation.

Each of the three leaders had a particular role to play in the redemption of Israel. Moses, of course, was singular, the emissary of God struggling before the Almighty for the sake of the people of Israel. His essential role was to represent not the Jewish people but, rather, God within the nation. He was not the chosen, or even the accepted popular leader of the people. Both Miriam and Aaron, on the other hand, are seen as the representatives of the nation, the redeemers acting from within. They were the leaders of the people in their Egyptian exile, rising from the ranks and preparing Israel to accept the prophecy of Moses. It is said in the Bible that Miriam and Aaron were prophets in their own right: that is, their vision was not dependent on that of Moses. It becomes apparent, too, that Miriam was the leader-prophet of the women of Israel, while Aaron was the leader of the men. This is evident even after the crossing of the Red Sea, following the great song (Exodus 15) which Moses sang in honor of all Israel, and Miriam separately organized the women in response, with “timbrels and with dances” (Exodus 15:20).

The role of a women’s chorus is a common phenomenon in Middle Eastern culture and may be of even greater antiquity than the male chorus. As in the Song of Deborah, the singing of women, usually accompanied by timbrels and dancing, gave expression to war, battle, and miracle. Frequently the song was led by a solo singer, who would compose the litany as she went along. The singer was, therefore, first and foremost a poetess whose task was to articulate and summarize a historical experience or to arouse the nation to cope with a present or forthcoming challenge. The song of Miriam is the first instance of such a song in the Bible and thus indicates that she was not only the sister of Moses and Aaron but also a leader in her own right.

The sages pointed out the special gifts associated with each of the redeemers on the journey to Canaan: manna with Moses, clouds of glory with Aaron, and the well with Miriam. Hence, the persistent tradition of the sages regarding “Miriam’s well” which, according to the Aggada, is a wandering well. In Talmudic times, for instance, it was said that Miriam’s well could be found in the Mediterranean Sea and seen from the heights of Mount Carmel. In other generations, it was said that the well was in the Sea of Galilee. Many commentaries and legends throughout history have told of striking Miriam’s well as a source of water or as a miracle-working spring which appears as a fountain of healing and redemption and then vanishes.

Beyond the national role of Miriam and her place as a leader and a prophetess of her generation, she was primarily the sister of Aaron and, even more, of Moses. According to the Scriptures, she was the “big sister” of the family and, as such, was naturally in charge of the younger children. Even in the biblical description of her family relations, one may perceive the special attitude of the older sister and the feeling of responsibility toward her younger brothers. One senses it not only when the baby Moses was placed in the ark, but even over eighty years later, when Miriam and Aaron were speaking against Moses — and were rebuked by God for their arrogance (Numbers 12:1-14). It seems that Miriam never quite got over being the older sister.

The biblical text does not provide us with much information about Miriam’s personal life. We know little of her marriage, although it was clear that she was married, and we learn little about her offspring. Again, the knowledge we have is almost entirely from legend and the Aggadic tradition, and according to this source, Miriam was, to a greater or lesser degree, the maternal forebear of the King of Judah. Her husband was of the tribe of Judah, and her descendants established the leading families from which David was ultimately descended. According to this same tradition, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam bear the three crowns with which Israel is blessed: the crown of prophecy, which is Moses’ (in the words of Maimonides, Moses is the father of the prophets); the crown of priesthood, which is Aaron’s; and the crown of kingship, which is Miriam’s. It is held that Bezalel, the builder of the Sanctuary (Exodus 37:1), was one of Miriam’s descendants; and that Hur, the enigmatic man who stood at Moses’ side during the battle against Amalek (17”9-16), may have been her son. All this exemplifies the close bond between the leaders of the tribe of Judah and the family of Amram. Aaron’s wife, for example, was the daughter of the head of the tribe of Judah at that time.

However, beyond all other ties, Miriam was essentially the one who felt responsible for Moses’ welfare. In a famous Talmudic story, it is said that Miriam prophesied to her parents that they would bear a son who would be the redeemer of Israel. Miriam standing “afar off” (Exodus 2:4) to watch what fate would befall the baby Moses was, therefore, attempting to verify her own prophecy. That is to say, Miriam felt responsible for Moses not only as a sister in the family sense but in the more important role as herald of his coming.

This role of harbinger of redemption is a repeated theme. Tradition has it that Elijah the Prophet would be the forerunner of the Messiah-Redeemer and identifies him with Pinhas the Priest.3 Elijah-Pinhas, the righteous priest, was the precursor of the Messiah; and the sons of Amram are, each in his own way, redeemers and forerunners of the ultimate redeemer.

During the Exodus from Egypt, the theme of the double herald is expressed in the division of roles between Aaron and Miriam. The tidings of redemption have two distinct aspects, paralleled in the tradition of Abraham and Sarah where “Abraham converts the men and Sarah converts the women.” More than once, the sages have pointed out that, in almost everything concerning the Exodus from Egypt, it is the men who seem to follow after the women, both in leaving Egypt and in receiving and submitting to the Law. This recognition of the special role of women in Exodus in stimulating and inspiring the men appears in several places in the Midrash, and the tradition that women did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf persisted for generations. For this reason, women were accorded their own festival — the new moon — which was not celebrated by the men, and at which time they abstained from work. Indeed, in certain communities, the tradition continues to this day, at least in regard to some labor. (It is probably linked to women because of the idea of monthly renewal).

According to this concept, Miriam is the first herald of redemption and hence her role in guarding Moses in the ark. Not only did she physically protect it from danger, but she also stood “afar off, to wit what would be done to him” (Exodus 2:4) because her role was that of guarding the vision of what was to be. She took upon herself the role of herald and, more than this, the role of ensuring that the tidings were fulfilled.

Redemption is often a stormy, revolutionary process and usually a threatening and dangerous one. In order for an individual or a nation to be redeemed, there must be preparation; the groundwork must be established. Redemption has no significance for one who is unprepared for it. To be redeemed from Egypt, the people of Israel had to pass through several stages of spiritual preparation in order to become willing to leave. It was not enough to suffer torments, since the bitterness of Israel alone could not suffice as an instrument of redemption; a framework of expectation must ensure that future greatness could be accepted. Many commentators claim that Miriam’s name4 is symbolic and expresses the bitterness of Israel’s life in Egypt. Be that as it may, her role in the decisive situation where Moses was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter was to ensure that the redeemer was not lost, that the dual relationship with the people would be kept: he would, on the one hand, be in the king’s house and, on the other, remain bound to his people and to his birth.

This part of the story symbolizes the essence of Miriam’s role as the older sister, not only of Moses and Aaron but, in a sense, of the whole nation. She was not the mother of redemption, but she made redemption possible. Her task was to know the priorities, to recognize the things that must be protected and preserved and to act accordingly. Later came also the ability to direct and control events and situations, to combine things correctly. These combinations were probably not decisive in themselves and would likely have arranged themselves unaided. Only their impact, their course, and their mutual exchange required Miriam’s intervention to become significant.

In the Exodus from Egypt, it is most significant that it was forbidden, or impossible, to bring about redemption or revelation by force. At every stage, there must be acquiescence and deep faith. For this, the nation needed the very prophets who grew from its ranks, Aaron, and Miriam, to prepare them for the events leading to the Revelation on Sinai. The Torah could not be revealed without a willingness to accept that revelation.

In the Bible, Yocheved was the mother of the redeemer, and Miriam was the one who leopard redemption to be created. She was, as it were, the midwife, which is how her role is seen in the midrashim. The midwife does not, herself, give birth, but is essential to the process of birth; she sees the newborn safely into the world. One midrashic commentary identifies Shifra and Puah, the two Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:15021) with Yochved and Miriam. Thus, the women who brought the children of the Hebrews into the world also prepared and created the conditions for their redemption.

The Exodus has been interpreted as a second chance for man and womankind: it is as though God were saying here that, at the time of the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, the commandment to abstain from eating its fruit was given to Adam, and the sin was the sin of Eve who did not, herself, receive the commandment. Therefore, in order to receive the Torah, and in a sense be created afresh, Israel must be approached from the opposite direction, through the women, Beit Yaakov, and thereafter to convince the men. This new combination of events and forces would be more stable because, despite later errors and deviations, the role of Beit Yaakov, the women, in receiving the Torah was expressed in “We will do, and be obedient” (Exodus 24:7). And this remains the significant and existential task of women throughout the generations. Herein, too, lies the essence of Miriam’s role: she is the “big sister” who watches and worries and prepares for the future — an essential and fundamental part of the process of redemption.

2.Exodus 2:1-0 and 15:20-21; Numbers 12:1-16.
3.See Sukka 52b on the relationship between the Messiah and the “righteous priest” in the book of Zechariah; also, from another angle, in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
4.In Hebrew, mar is “bitter.”