Parshat Vaeira: The Abrupt End of the Lineage

“And Hashem spoke to Moshe and Ahron and He commanded them regarding Bnai Yisrael and Paroh the king of the Egyptians that they should take Bnai Yisrael out of Egypt.” (Shemot 6:13)

This passage introduces a seemingly odd discussion. After this passage, the Chumash initiates a discussion of the families of Bnai Yisrael. The Torah enumerates the families of the tribe of Reuven. Then, the Torah lists the families of the tribe of Leyve. Once the Torah reaches Moshe and Ahron, this discussion ends.

In order to understand these passages, we must consider a related issue. Maimonides, in his Mishne Torah, describes the appropriate qualities for a judge of a major court. Among these qualities is lineage. There is a standard for the evaluation of this lineage. This standard is the ability to marry into a family of Kohanim. A candidate permitted to marry into a family of Kohanim, may be appointed as a judge of a major court. A person not permitted to marry into a family of Kohanim, is not appointed as a judge. What is the source for this requirement? Maimonides quotes a passage from Sefer BeMidbar. There, seventy Elders are appointed to serve with Moshe. Hashem tells Moshe that these Elders, “will stand there with you.” Maimonides explains that the phrase, “with you” implies that the Elders must be “with” Moshe in certain fundamental qualities. Lineage is one of these qualities. Future judges of major courts are also required to meet this standard. Maimonides derives his comments directly from the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin. Nonetheless, this law and its derivation are difficult to understand. Moshe possessed various personal characteristics. These were physical qualities and spiritual perfections. The Torah tells us that all judges must posses some of Moshe’s qualities. The Talmud concludes that one of the characteristics is lineage. However, the reason that lineage is chosen is unclear. Of all of Moshe’s personal qualities, why is lineage so fundamental? Tosefot ask a similar question on the Talmud. Another quality required in a judge of a major court is physical perfection. Certain physical blemishes render the judge unfit to serve. This requirement is derived from a specific passage. Tosefot note that according to the Talmud, Moshe was free of all blemishes. The Talmud maintains that there is an equation between Moshe and judges of major courts. This equation should be adequate to disqualify a person afflicted with a physical blemish. Why is a separate passage needed to disqualify candidates with such blemishes? Tosefot offer a rather enigmatic answer. They respond that the passage’s equation is not adequate to disqualify a person with a blemish. Although it is difficult to understand Tosefot’s answer, the general message is clear. The equation between Moshe and other judges is not total. The equation only extends to certain specific characteristics. Other characteristics of Moshe cannot be extended to all judges through this equation. Apparently, Tosefot maintain the physical perfection is one of the characteristics that cannot be implied through this equation. Therefore, this requirement must be established through a separate passage.

We must understand the limits of this equation. What characteristics are suggested by the equation? Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik suggests that the answer to this question is found in our passage. The Torah states the Hashem commanded Moshe regarding Bnai Yisrael. Sforno explains that the passage is not telling us that Hashem provided Moshe and Ahron with specific instructions. The pasuk records the appointing of Moshe and Ahron, by Hashem, as the leaders of Bnai Yisrael. The following passages describe the families of Bnai Yisrael. However, the account suddenly stops once Moshe and Ahron are introduced. Rashi comments that these passages are a description of Moshe and Ahron’s lineage. In short, the Torah describes Moshe and Ahron’s lineage in the context of their appointment as leaders. This answers all of our questions. All judges of major courts are equated to Moshe. They must share his perfect lineage. Why is lineage selected as a characteristic of Moshe that other judges must share? The answer is now obvious! This is the very quality the Torah immediately discusses following the appointment of Moshe and Ahron. Tosefot’s comments are also easily understood. We cannot extend the equation between Moshe and other judges to include physical perfection. This quality is not discussed in reference to Moshe’s appointment. Therefore, it is not included in the equation.

“And the river will swarm with frogs. And they will emerge and go into your house and bedroom and bed. And they will enter the houses of your servants and people and into your ovens and kneading bowls.” (Shemot 7:28)

Hashem instructs Moshe to threaten Paroh with the plague of frogs. Moshe is to describe the extent of the plague. The frogs will infest the entire land. They will overrun the homes of the Egyptians. They will even invade their beds and ovens. These instructions stress the impact of the plague upon the Egyptians. This raises a question. Would Bnai Yisrael also suffer from this plague? Would Bnai Yisrael somehow be spared from this affliction? Our Sages differ on this issue.

Maimonides presents his view in his commentary on Tractate Avot. The mishne in Tractate Avot states that our ancestors experienced ten miracles in Egypt. What were these ten miracles? Maimonides asserts that the plagues only affected the Egyptians. The frogs did not invade the homes of Bnai Yisrael. Why were Bnai Yisrael spared from these ten plagues? The most obvious answer is that this was an expression of Hashem’s kindness to the Jewish people. This interpretation is implied by the mishne in Avot. The mishne states that Hashem performed ten miracles for Bnai Yisrael in Egypt. The exclusion of the Jewish people from the affliction of the plagues is described as a miracle done on there behalf. This supports the thesis that the Almighty spared Bnai Yisrael as an expression of love.

Rav Yisrael Lipschitz in his commentary on the Mishne ­ Teferet Yisrael ­ supports this interpretation of the Mishne. He adds that this kindness was an expression of the Almighty’s love for the forefathers. Maimonides offers a different interpretation of Bnai Yisrael’s exclusion from the plagues. He explains that there are two types of miracles. Some miracles are apparent aberrations from nature. The splitting of the Reed Sea is an example of this class of miracle. Other miracles are not inconsistent with the natural order of the universe. Nonetheless, these events qualify as wonders. Of course, this raises a question. Events that seemingly contradict natural law are obviously miraculous. However, the second class of miracles is not inconsistent with the natural order. Then, what is miraculous about these events? Maimonides explains that three characteristics can elevate an event from the commonplace to the wondrous. The first characteristic is timing. The event occurs at the exact moment predicted by the prophet. For example, a prophet predicts that the home of an evil person will be immediately struck by lightening. We would not normally view a destructive lightening bolt as an act of G-d. However, lighting striking immediately upon the pronouncement of the prophet deserves to be regarded as a wonder. The second quality is the extent of the phenomenon or the presence of an element of discrimination. Rain is not a miracle. However, the Deluge was a wondrous event by virtue of the magnitude of the phenomenon. According to Maimonides, the ten plagues were all wondrous events because they exclusively affected the Egyptians. The selective exclusion of Bnai Yisrael from the suffering endowed these events with a miraculous aspect. Third, the presence of a consistent pattern can render an event into a miracle. The blessings in the Torah are examples of this third characteristic. Abundant crops or famine are not miraculous occurrences. However, a consistent relationship between behavior and material well-being over an extended period is a wondrous phenomenon!

Maimonides’ comments provide another perspective on Bnai Yisrael’s exclusion from the plagues. Any of the above characteristics can render a commonplace event into a wonder. Certainly, the convergence of all three characteristics is convincing evidence of the wondrous nature of an event or series of events. It seems that every characteristic identified by Maimonides was present in the plagues. Generally, Moshe predicted the onset and termination of each plague. On one occasion, he even allowed Paroh to chose the moment of cessation. The plagues involved sudden massive catastrophes. At the same time, these calamities did not affect the Jewish people. Finally, the plagues corresponded with Paroh’s behavior. His refusal to release Bnai Yisrael was followed by suffering. His repentance, inevitably lead to a cessation of the plague. This consistent pattern continued throughout the ten plagues.

In short, according to Maimonides the exclusion of Bnai Yisrael from the plagues was not necessarily a manifestation of Hashem’s love. Instead, this discrimination was needed to endow these events with a wondrous aspect.

“And the magicians could not stand before Moshe because of the boils, for the boils had attacked the magicians and all the Egyptians.” (Shemot 9:11)

The Torah explains that the plague of Boils represented a turning point in the punishment of the Egyptians. The magicians of Egypt were rendered helpless. This is difficult to understand. The magicians had not been spared the previous plagues. They had not been exempt from the suffering of their countrymen. Why was this plague more devastating for the magicians? Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam addresses this question. The magicians had attempted to duplicate each of Moshe’s miracles. They had some success. This allowed them to boast that their power was comparable to Moshe’s. Perhaps, Moshe was a better magician and more knowledgeable. However, they claimed that the difference was quantitative. They and Moshe used similar means. This plague completely undermined their claim. Moshe overpowered the magicians. The boils debilitated them. They could not even appear before Moshe to challenge his miracles. They were humiliated. They could no longer compare their power to Moshe’s. Moshe had demonstrated that he was not working through the same means as the Egyptians. He was acting as the agent of some greater power.

Sefer BeMidbar 11:16. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:1. Tosefot, Mesechet Sanhedrin 36b. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot 6:13. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 6:13. Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, Chidushai MaRan RIZ HaLeyve on the Torah, Parshat VaEra. Mesechet Avot 5:4. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Avot 5:4. Rav Yisrael Lipshitz, Teferet Yisrael Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Avot 5:4. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Ma’amar Techiyat HaMaitim, chapter 10. Sefer Shemot 8:5. Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Shemot 9:11.