In this week’s parasha, Va’eira, we learn of Pharaoh’s refusal to allow the Children of Israel to leave Egypt and the first seven of the Ten Plagues. These are terrifying miracles: The water in the Nile (and everywhere else in Egypt except Goshen, where the Israelites live) turns to blood; frogs emerge from every body of water; lice come from the dust; beasts swarm freely; cattle, horses, sheep and other domestic animals die; boils and blisters cover the Egyptians and their animals; hail mixed with fire descends, killing crops and everything else that is outside.
The parasha details the ongoing negotiations between Pharaoh and the representatives of the Israelites, Moses and Aaron. Moses and Aaron demand that Pharaoh release their people and, in several cases, warn Pharaoh of the plague that God will bring if Pharaoh does not listen. Pharaoh mocks and challenges them. Then a plague comes.
At the start of this dramatic story, there is a surprising bit of family history. (Exodus 6:14-27) The Torah describes the lineage of Moses and Aaron, starting with their grandfather, Levi. We learn Levi lived 137 years, his son Kohath lived 133 years, and Kohath’s son Amram lived 137 years. Amram is the father of Aaron (the older brother) and Moses. The parasha also explains Amram married his aunt, Jocheved, who was a daughter of Levi.
Not only do we learn about the ancestors of the men who are heroes of this story, we also are introduced to some of their wives.. In addition to learning about Jocheved, the parasha tells us that Aaron married Elisheva, daughter of Amminadab (a prince of the Tribe of Judah). We learn that Elisheva’s brother is Nachshon, the brave first person to enter the Red Sea before it split. Aaron’s son Elazar marries one of the daughters of a very distinguished family. They have a son, Phinehas, whose quick action in stopping a plague when many people were sinning with the Midianites earned him the honor to be the only person other than Aaron and his sons to be designated a kohen (priest).
Why would the Torah take time from the important story of how the Israelites are freed to describe the family relations of Aaron and Moses?
The rabbis explain that we can understand Aaron and Moses better by knowing their fathers and grandfathers were great men. The Ramban says the Torah gives the ancestors’ ages to show that, because they lived a long time, they had many opportunities to be fine role models and teachers for their children and grandchildren, including Aaron, Moses and Jocheved. And the women of other distinguished families, like Elisheva, used what they had learned to help raise fine children.
Remember a couple of weeks ago, in Parasha Vayechi, we learned one of Ramban’s favorite principles: “Everything that occurred to the Patriarchs is a sign for their descendants.” The Patriarchs also chose to follow the good example of their parents. That did not happen with every child of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs – Ishmael and Esau had distinguished parents just like Isaac and Jacob, but chose not to follow the ways of their parents.
And do you notice how the Torah, right at the very start of the Exodus story, reminds us of the importance of family. Where do we retell the story of the Exodus every year? At the Seder table, with our family.
“Everything that occurred to the Patriarchs is a sign for their descendants” – like you.