In deriving meaning from Torah, the most innocent-looking words can pack a big punch. Just think about how Nachum ish gam zu was able to find significance in the word “et” (Chagigah 12a). A beginning Hebrew student might be taught not to translate this word, that it carries no real meaning – yet if we set our minds to it, we can learn a lot from those two little letters.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that a number of commentaries see a great deal of meaning in one little word in this pasuk:
“And a man of the house of Levi went, and he married a daughter of Levi.” (Shemot 2:1)
So begins the momentous story of Moshe’s birth – and according to many commentators, the word vayelech, “and he went,” itself alludes to the momentousness of the occasion.
Not everyone sees it that way, of course. Ibn Ezra, for instance, suggests that Amram (the man) and Yocheved (the woman) simply lived in different cities; he “went” to her because they weren’t in the same place and couldn’t get married unless somebody went somewhere. No big deal.
But then there’s the famous midrashic tradition that sees the “going” as a very big deal. The Gemara in Sotah 12a understands “and he went” idiomatically, telling us Amram’s marriage to Yocheved was actually a remarriage that came about because he “went after his daughter’s advice” – or, as we say in English, “he followed her advice.” And what was that advice, so significant that the Torah hints to it and the midrash fleshes it out and it led to Moshe’s birth and growth into the savior of the Jewish people? According to the midrash, Miriam guided her father towards hope in the midst of hopelessness. He had separated from his wife because it seemed pointless to bring children into the world just to be killed, but Miriam pointed out that (1) some babies born would be girls, and wouldn’t be killed, (2) refraining from having children at all removed not only their chance at life in this world, but also in the World to Come, and (3) Pharaoh’s decree to kill the boys might not even be carried out, but as a tzaddik, Amram would definitely be successful in his chosen course of action to prevent any births.
The questions of certainty and uncertainty in Miriam’s third point can be seen underlying the whole debate. Amram was so sure of how things would play out if he allowed babies to be born that he stepped back from action. His daughter, however, offered him a more complex picture of what was and wasn’t certain, and ironically, opening up more unknowns gave him the confidence to take a step forward. It was still scary: he might (and did) have a boy, who would indeed be in danger because of Pharaoh’s decree; the World to Come doesn’t feel as certain as the one right in front of us; and it’s hard to rely on a nebulous concept of personal righteousness and merit when confronted by the immanent reality of a powerful king’s decree. Yet, Amram did it; vayelech.
Ramban offers the same basic idea as the midrash in a more streamlined, peshat-oriented depiction, and it centers on that one word: “Scripture said [the word vayelech] because he didn’t worry about Pharaoh’s decree, but took himself a wife to have children with her. Because with anyone who is zealous to do a new thing, it says this.”
Zeal and initiative can be tremendously powerful, positive traits that lead a person towards momentous accomplishments – but they can also be double-edged swords. Ramban goes on to offer several examples of pesukim in which the word “vayelech” indicates “zeal to do a new thing,” and they’re not all positive. “And Reuven went and lay with Bilha” (Bereishit 35:22), for instance. Hoshea’s marriage to Gomer bat Devalim in Hoshea 1:3 – divinely mandated, true, but overall not an action we feel great about. “Come (lechu) and we will sell him to the Yishmaelim” (Bereishit 37:2). Etc.
Are we really to take the brothers’ sale of Yosef as a model of zealous initiative? Is that step comparable to the step (literal and/or metaphorical) Amram took to marry Yocheved?
In a similar explanation, Abarbanel suggests that the Torah emphasizes the marriage between Amram and Yocheved as being holy and in keeping with G-d’s will – an important point to emphasize, he says, because Yocheved was Amram’s aunt and “according to societal wisdom, it is not proper that a man marry his aunt….” For this reason, says Abarbanel, “The Torah said ‘a man went’ – describing this matter with ‘going’ because it was a strange, surprising matter.”
Reading Abarbanel – and Ramban, too – another English phrase comes to mind: “He went and did it!” The word “vayelech” isn’t just about a surprising action, but about doing something even though it’s surprising. I can’t believe he took such a step!
As Abarbanel highlights, sometimes an action is surprising because it seems negative. As Ramban’s examples indicate, some surprising actions actually are negative.
Rav Hirsch, yet another commentary who highlights the initiative and courage implied by the apparently superfluous word “vayelech,” links the positive and negative results of a zealous personality. He points out that what he calls “the Levite spirit” was alluded to in Yaakov’s bracha as a negative, but that the same trait was also “to be the saving spirit in times of oppression.” The same underlying character traits that led Levi to join his brother in killing the people of Shechem also allowed his children to upend the Egyptian oppression: according to midrashic tradition, the midwives who thwarted Pharaoh’s initial decree were from Levi; Moshe’s parents, who had to find the courage to risk having him, were from Levi. Moshe himself, we might add, had to take step after step out of his comfort zone to free his people.
We all have comfort zones, and we often don’t like stepping out of them. We might be worried about what people will think, as may have been a concern for Amram and Yocheved. We might be worried about rejection, like Moshe was when he protested time and again that nobody will listen to him. We might be worried that our choice will have terrible consequences, the concern we would have expected from the midwives and that is attributed to Amram by both the midrash and Ramban’s peshat.
But as Miriam reminds her father in that midrash – if we stick with what we know or think we know, if we’re too afraid to take a step into uncertainty, we’ll lose all the good that could have come. And if we take the step – who can ever know where it might lead?
In some of Ramban’s examples, the action was a mistake; in others, it seemed odd but was actually positive (like Abarbanel suggests in the case of Amram’s marriage to Yocheved). Yet he cites them all together, perhaps because in every case, vayelech deserves to be recognized for what it is: a step towards something unexpected and/or uncertain. We can respect the courage it takes to face that unknown, to make a choice and – excuse yet another cliché – “just do it.”
Of course, we don’t want to encourage haphazard steps towards dubious goals, with dubious motivation, just for the sake of doing something of note. “Just do it” is a tricky concept. Sometimes an action is surprising for good reason; sometimes, better that we just don’t do it. But sometimes, taking a risk – a step towards the unexpected – can have a momentous impact. And we might not know the impact that step can have, until we go and do it.
Just consider how many decisions and actions, big and small, have shaped each of our lives. Naturally indecisive myself, I’m often struck by how random many decisions can feel – and how easy it can be to change the course of history, or at least our lives or at least one day, in the moment it takes to just go one way or the other. The choice to click “send” on an email is a great example of an action that can be dangerous if not carefully thought out, but incredibly rewarding if it is: Do we apply for the job or not? Invite the Shabbos guest or not? Reach out to the person who hurt us, or that we hurt? Submit the article for publication? One click – and vayelech, we’ve taken that first step – and then stuff can happen.
In the words of Amos Chacham, author of the Daat Mikra commentary on Shemot, “Vayelech… indicates the arousal to action and the transition from lack of action to a situation of action.”
In just one moment, with just one step, we can transform ourselves from “inactive” to “active.” We can transform the unknown to known. And if we just do it right, we just might transform the world.
Sometimes, that’s worth a little risk.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.