In the middle of one of the Torah’s grandest and most exciting stories, we are confronted with a rather particular genealogy (Shemot 6:14-28), ostensibly giving us background into Moshe and Aharon before we go on with the Exodus saga. If you are like me, you probably never read that carefully, contenting yourself with some more general explanation of what it is doing here (see R. S. R. Hirsch for a particularly interesting approach on that level).
But if you do so, you will likely find quite a few surprises. The general outline is clear enough – the focus is on the Tribe of Levi, giving us more background about Moshe and Aharon’s family context. But it is by no means linear – some siblings are mentioned while others aren’t, likewise some lines are mentioned while others aren’t.
For example, in this long list, we are only hear about three marriages: Amram to Yocheved; Aharon to Elisheva; and Aharon’s son Elazar to a daughter of Putiel. Furthermore we would expect no children to be mentioned past Moshe and Aharon – certainly none besides the children of Moshe and Aharon. But that is not the case. Indeed, Moshe’s children are not mentioned, even though we only know the name of one of them so far. (And alhough we already know of his marriage to Tzipporah, a standard genealogy would have included her, as well as the name of his two sons.) In contrast, all of Aharon’s sons are mentioned. But not only are all of his sons mentioned, so is one of his grandsons – namely Pinchas.
There is however a strong clue that answers most of the strange contours of this genealogy. At its end (6:26), we read, “This is Aharon and Moshe…” It is not the order we would expect, nor is it the order we find elsewhere – ordinarily the order is according to their importance, Moshe and Aharon. But given what we have seen above, the change makes perfect sense. For this genealogy is ultimately Aharon’s and not Moshe’s. Though they share parents and ancestors, once the two lines diverge, the Torah tells us exclusively about Aharon’s descendants (with a short interruption about Korach, but that is for another day).
At first, this might seem a radically different understanding than that of the famous midrash endorsed by Rashi on this verse – that the mention of Aharon first is to show us that Moshe and Aharon are equal. R. Baruch HaLevi Epstein, however, correctly expresses tremendous surprise at this midrash. Moshe and Aharon are certainly not equal, and Aharon gets thoroughly scolded by God in Bemidbar for thinking as much! Moreover, I would add that the midrash fails to explain why Aharon is mentioned first specifically here.
Hence I believe that if we think more carefully about the midrash, it may not only be endorsing our understanding, but also explaining its significance. For though we have found good evidence to conclude that the genealogy is Aharon’s and not Moshe’s, we have yet to find a good reason for that. Moshe is the star of the section: The main focus in the Exodus has been – and will continue to be – on him, certainly until we get to the sacrificial service. Hence the Torah should serve up his line here, and not that of his overshadowed older brother.
So this is where the midrash comes in. It is telling us that though Aharon has a much less spectacular role in this story, the role he does play is ultimately just as important: Moshe speaks to God and teaches the Jewish people His Torah. He is the prophet extraordinaire and, by far, the most important Jew to have ever lived. There is only true problem with him however – and that is that he was not a true family man. Indeed, he could not have been – and this exactly the flip side of his being a greater prophet than Aharon.
And so Jewish tradition tells us that not only were his offspring unextraordinary, at least one of his grandchildren was a blatant idolater. Not so Aharon’s line, which is not only free of such stains (Nadav and Avihu’s sin likely coming from too much love of God, rather than too little) but is represented in the third generation by no less a figure than Pinchas. That is to say that alongside the very greats who lead and inspire the Jewish people, we also need good family men that provide for its continuity – meaning more Jews to continue following the path that the greats teach us. Indeed, the gift that will be given to Aharon’s descendants would be one of regularity, to keep doing the same service day in and day out – a natural expression of their own continuity. That is his family’s greatness, and one no less essential than Moshe’s.
So while the story line belongs to Moshe, the genealogy belongs to Aharon. And the survival of Judaism belongs to both.