Aaron and Moses Taught Brothers to Live in Unity
Tetzaveh is the only sedra (Torah portion) between Exodus and Deuteronomy that does not contain the word “Moses.” For once, Moses — the hero, the leader, the liberator, the lawgiver — is offstage. Instead, our focus is on his elder brother Aaron, who is often in the background. Indeed virtually the whole sedra of Tetzaveh is devoted to the role that Moses did not occupy: the priest.
Why so? The commentators offered many suggestions. One offered by R. Jacob ben Asher relates this week’s sedra to an event at the beginning of Moses’ leadership: his encounter with God at the burning bush (Ex. 3-4):
But Moses said, “O Lord, please send someone else to do it.” Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses, 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.” (Ex. 4:13-15)
The Sages say it was this hesitation on the part of Moses that caused part of his role — as potential high priest — to be given to his brother.
Without negating this or other explanations, there may be a more fundamental message. As I have mentioned before, one of the recurring themes of Genesis is sibling rivalry — hostility between brothers. This story is told, at ever-increasing length, four times: between Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau and Joseph and his brothers.
There is an identifiable pattern to this set of narratives, best seen in the way that each ends. The story of Cain and Abel ends with murder, fratricide. Isaac and Ishmael — though they grow up apart — are seen together at Abraham’s funeral. Evidently there had been a reconciliation, though this is told between the lines. Jacob and Esau meet, embrace and go their separate ways. Joseph and his brothers are reconciled, and live together in peace.
Genesis is telling us a story of great consequence. Fraternity — one of the key words of the French revolution — is not simple or straightforward. It is often fraught with conflict and contention. Yet, slowly, brothers can learn that there is another way.
But this is not the end of the story. There is a fifth chapter: the relationship between Moses and Aaron. Here, for the first time, there is no hint of sibling rivalry. The brothers work together from the very outset of the mission to lead the Israelites to freedom. They address the people together. They stand together when confronting Pharaoh. They perform signs and wonders together. They share leadership of the people in the wilderness together. For the first time, brothers function as a team — with different gifts, different talents, different roles — but without hostility, each complementing the other.
This is conveyed by the Torah in two striking phrases. The first is in the passage already cited above. God says to Moses: Aaron “is already on his way to meet you, and his heart will be glad when he sees you.” How different this is from the tense encounters between brothers in Genesis.
Aaron should have many reasons not to rejoice upon seeing Moses return. The brothers had not grown up together. Moses had been adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in an Egyptian palace. Nor had they been together during the Israelites’ sufferings. Moses, fearing for his life after his assault on an Egyptian taskmaster, had fled to Midian. Besides this, Moses was Aaron’s younger brother, and it was he who was about to become leader of the people. Yet God assures Moses: “When Aaron sees you, he will rejoice.” And so he did (Ex. 4:27).
The second intimation is contained in a strange text, tracing the descent of Moses and Aaron:
Amram married his father’s sister Jochebed, who bore him Aaron and Moses. Amram lived 137 years . . . It was this same Aaron and Moses to whom the Lord 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 the same Moses and Aaron. (Ex. 6:20, 26-27)
The repeated phrase, “It was this same,” is emphatic. The unmistakable implication is that Moses and Aaron were like a single individual. They were one. There was no hierarchy between them: sometimes Aaron’s name appears first, sometimes Moses’.
Moses and Aaron were quite different in temperament and role. Moses was the man of truth, Aaron of peace. Their roles were in creative tension. Yet they worked side by side, each respecting the distinctive gift of the other.
A final midrash completes the picture, by referring to this week’s sedra and the vestments of the High Priest, especially the breastplate with its Urim and Tumim:
“His heart will be glad when he sees you” — Let the heart that rejoiced in the greatness of his brother be vested with the Urim and Tumim. (Shemot Rabbah 3:17)
It was precisely the fact that Aaron did not envy his younger brother that made him worthy to be the High Priest. Just as Aaron made space for his younger brother to lead, so the Torah makes space for Aaron to lead. That is why Aaron is the hero of Tetzaveh; for once, he is not overshadowed by Moses.
“Who is honored?” asked Ben Zoma (Avot 4:1). “One who honors others.” Aaron honored his younger brother. That is why he is rewarded.
The story of Aaron and Moses is where fraternity reaches the heights. And that surely is the meaning of Psalm 133, with its explicit reference to Aaron and his sacred garments: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity. It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.” It was thanks to Aaron, and the honor he showed Moses, that at last brothers learned to live together in unity.