These are the heads of their extended families. The sons of Reuven, the firstborn of Yisrael were Chanoch, Phalu, Chetzron, and Karmi. These were the families of Reuven. (Shemot 6:14)
In our parasha, the Torah describes the lineage of Moshe and Aharon. This description begins with our pasuk. Why does the Torah provide with this narrative? Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that Moshe and Aharon were appointed as the leaders of Bnai Yisrael. The Torah provides us with the lineage of these individuals who were charged with the leadership of the Jewish people.
This explanation is difficult to understand. Moshe was appointed as leader of Bnai Yisrael in Parshat Shemot. There, Moshe experienced his first prophecy. Hashem revealed that He would redeem Bnai Yisrael from bondage in Egypt and Moshe would lead the Jewish people out of Egypt and into the Land of Israel. At that time, Aharon was also appointed. He was assigned the task of speaking for Moshe before Bnai Yisrael and Paroh. Why is the Torah now describing the lineage of Moshe and Aharon? Their lineage should be recorded at the juncture of their initial appointment!
In order to answer this question, we must deal with another issue. The end of Parshat Shemot describes Moshe and Aharon’s initial conversation with Bnai Yisrael. The Torah explains that Aharon spoke to the people. He told the nation that Hashem would redeem the Jewish people from Egypt. Then, Moshe and Aharon addressed Paroh. They asked Paroh to allow Bnai Yisrael to enter the wilderness and serve Hashem. Apparently in this conversation, Aharon served as spokesman. Paroh was incensed with this request. In response, he increased the labor required of the Jewish people. The people confronted Moshe and Aharon and strongly criticized them for angering Paroh.
Moshe asked Hashem to explain these events. In the beginning of our parasha, relates the answer Hashem provided. Then, He told Moshe to speak with Bnai Yisrael and offer reassurance. Moshe obeyed. He spoke to the people. In this conversation, Aharon did not act as spokesman. Moshe addressed the nation directly. The question is obvious. Why did Moshe speak to the people? Aharon had been appointed as spokesman. Moshe was to provide the message Aharon was charged with responsibility for the delivery!
Hashem then instructed Moshe to again speak to Paroh and petition Paroh to release Bnai Yisrael. Moshe responded that he would not be effective. He was not an articulate speaker. He argued that he was unable to communicate with Bnai Yisrael. Certainly, there was little hope that he could motivate Paroh!
Clearly, Moshe’s understanding was that he was to address Paroh. Aharon would not be his mouthpiece. Why did Moshe come to this conclusion? Aharon had already been appointed as spokesman!
Sforno offers an explanation for Moshe’s actions. Moshe understood that Aharon was appointed to act as his spokesman. However, his understanding was that this appointment was limited. Aharon was appointed to present the initial messages to Bnai Yisrael and Paroh. Aharon did this. Moshe did not assume that an ongoing relationship had been created. Therefore, after the delivery of these first two messages, Moshe took-on the role of speaker. He understood Aharon’s role to be over.
Gershonides also explains Moshe’s behavior. His explanation is similar to Sforno’s. However, there is significant difference. He explains that Moshe was correct. His understanding of Aharon’s appointment was completely accurate. Aharon’s appointment as spokesperson was limited. He was assigned this role for the purpose of delivering the initial messages to Bnai Yisrael and Paroh. He did not have any ongoing authority. After the communication of these messages, Aharon could no longer speak for Moshe. Therefore, Moshe assumed the responsibility of communicating his prophesies. According to Gershonides, Moshe was completely correct!
Based on this insight, Gershonides answers our original question. Why is the lineage of Moshe and Aharon discussed in our parasha? He agrees that this lineage is recorded in the context of Moshe and Aharon’s appointment as leaders. However, this leaves him with a problem. This appointment took place in Parshat Shemot!
Gershonides responds that the question is based upon a faulty premise. The leadership of Bnai Yisrael was not determined in Parshat Shemot. The relationship established there – that Moshe would receive the message and transmit it to Aharon for communication – was not permanent or even ongoing. That relationship was created on a temporary basis. It would function during the initial communications with Bnai Yisrael and Paroh. It was not authorized beyond that point. In our parasha, an ongoing relationship is created. Moshe and Aharon would permanently assume the role of leaders.
This answers our question. The Torah records the lineage of Moshe and Aharon in our parasha. This is because only at this point is the leadership finalized. With this finalization, it is appropriate to record the lineage of the leaders.
The transformation of Aharon’s staff into a serpent
And Paroh called to the wise men and to the magicians. And the sorcerers of Egypt also did so with their sorcery. (Shemot 7:11)
Moshe and Aharon perform their first wonder before Paroh. Moshe instructs Aharon to cast his staff in front of Paroh. The staff miraculously is transformed into a tanin – a serpent. Paroh summons his wise men and magicians. These are the masters of Egyptian sorcery. Paroh instructs his servants to duplicate Moshe and Aharon’s miracle. The sorcerers are able to duplicate the transformation to Paroh’s satisfaction. However, Moshe and Aharon prove that their miracle is superior. Aharon’s serpent swallows the serpent produced by the Egyptians.
How were the Egyptians able to duplicate the miracle performed by Moshe and Aharon? The commentaries explain that the magicians had not really performed a transformation. These sorcerers were masters of illusion. They used their skills to create an illusion of a serpent. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that the serpent created by the sorcerers was not a living creature. Their illusion of a serpent had no movement. This distinction was demonstrated when Aharon’s serpent swallowed the sham serpent created by the Egyptians.
Malbim offers a different explanation of the magician’s illusion. The key to Malbim’s explanation lies in the details of the episode. This was not the first time Moshe had performed the miracle of transforming the inanimate into a living creature. Hashem had instructed Moshe to transform his staff for Bnai Yisrael. However, in that incident, the staff had been converted into a snake. The transformation performed in Paroh’s presence was much more impressive. The staff became a serpent. A snake has dimensions similar to the staff. A serpent is a large creature.
Malbim explains that the magicians used the serpent’s size to their advantage. Their illusion required the coordinated efforts of two parties. One magician threw forth his staff. A second magician was hiding nearby. This accomplice was disguised as a serpent. As the staff flew through the air, the second magician jumped forth from his hiding place. He grabbed the staff in mid-air, hid it within his disguise and landed on the ground. These magicians were experts in this type of deception. They carefully arranged the lighting and other factors. It appeared that the magician’s staff had been transformed.
What was this creature that the Chumash calls a serpent or tanin? How were the Egyptians able to create a convincing disguise to use in their illusion? In 1481 a Jewish traveler, Meshulam ben Rav Manahem, traveled from Italy to Rhodes. From Rhodes Meshulam traveled through much of the Middle East. His travels took him to the Land of Israel and also Egypt. He kept a diary of his travels. As Meshulam traveled along the Nile, he was astonished to encounter very large serpents. Many were larger than humans. He describes these serpents in detail. He also indicates the name given to these serpents in various languages. In English, they are called crocodiles.
This account seems to support the explanation of Malbim. The serpent costume might well have been the complete skin of a crocodile. Unfortunately for the Egyptians, a man in a crocodile suit is no match for the real thing – Aharon’s serpent.
1. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 6:14. 2. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 6:12. 3. Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook), pp. 28-29. 4. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 7:12. 5. Rav Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel (Malbim), HaTorah VeHaMitzvah – Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 7:11.