Parashat Vaera- Moshe Was Human
Surprisingly, the Torah in Parashat Vaera interrupts the story of the Exodus from Egypt with a genealogical record of the first three of the tribes of Israel – Reuben, Shimon and Levi. It lists the names of the first several generations that descended from these three sons of Yaakob. Once the Torah reaches Moshe and Aharon, members of the tribe of Levi, this section ends, and the story of Yesiat Misrayim resumes.
The commentators offered different explanations for why the Torah found it necessary to list the names of the descendants of these tribes. A particularly insightful approach was taken by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Frankfurt, Germany, 1808-1888), whose yahrtzeit is observed around the time this Parasha is read, on 27 Tebet. He explains that Moshe’s singular, exceptional stature of greatness gave rise to the concern that people would look to him as a type of divine being. We know of other religions that elevated their leaders to G-d-like status, Heaven forbid, finding it necessary to claim that the founder of their faith was more than just a human. Judaism, however, outright rejects such a notion. We of course admire and revere our spiritual heroes, but we firmly believe that they were human beings, sharing the same physical properties as the rest of us. At no point did Judaism ever embrace the notion that a human being can be a divine being.
And for this reason, Rav Hirsch writes, the Torah elaborates on Moshe’s family background. It wants to emphasize that Moshe, like us, was produced by a father and mother who got married, and that he had siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and a large extended family. Before Moshe confronted Pharaoh to bring the ten plagues and put the miraculous process of the Exodus into motion, it was necessary for the Torah to emphasize that Moshe was human, no less human than anybody else, a member of a family.
Rav Hirsch’s explanation brings to mind a brilliant insight of the Hatam Sofer (Rav Moshe Sofer, Pressburg, 1762-1839) to explain an otherwise perplexing comment of the Midrash. When the time came for Moshe to pass away, G-d said to him, "Hen Karebu Yamecha La’mut" – "Behold, the time of your death is approaching" (Debarim 31:14). The Midrash relates that Moshe responded by questioning why G-d used the word "Hen" in this context, in informing him of his imminent death. Moshe had used this same word earlier, in describing G-d’s unlimited power and dominion over the earth: "Hen L’Hashem Elokecha Ha’shamayim U’shmeh Ha’shamayim" ("Behold, G-d owns the heavens and the upper heavens…" – Debarim 10:14). Why, Moshe asked, would G-d use the word that he had invoked in praising Him to announce that he would soon leave this world? The Midrash does not tell us how G-d responded to Moshe’s complaint, why He chose to use the word "Hen" when informing Moshe that he would soon pass away.
The Hatam Sofer explained that G-d used this word precisely because Moshe’s death served to preserve the belief in G-d’s exclusive, absolute dominion over the earth. Moshe’s passing was, of course, a painful loss, but it was a crucial reminder that he was only human, that despite his unparalleled stature of greatness, he was not a divine being. And thus G-d informed Moshe about his imminent passing with the word "Hen" – hearkening to Moshe’s pronouncement of G-d’s unlimited rule over the earth, a tenet of faith which was reinforced by Moshe’s death, as his mortality demonstrated that he was human, and not a G-d.