Moses exemplified the good sibling, without the rivalry

Exodus 27:20-30-:11;
Ezekiel 43:10-27

Biblical portrayals of sibling relationships are frequently contentious at best and murderous at worst: Cain killed Abel , Jacob stole Esau’s birthright and blessing; Joseph reigned over his brothers, and so forth. In each case, the supplanting of an older sibling by a younger overturned the rule of primogeniture.

In contrast, the portrayal of the relationship between Moses and Aaron is more favorable, defined by the jubilation of each brother in the greatness of the other. Perhaps their personalities provided the basis for a more harmonious relationship than those portrayed in earlier narratives. For example, Moses is described as “a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” (Num. 12:3). Centuries later, Aaron’s conciliatory character led Hillel to offer this counsel: “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving and pursuing peace.” (Aboth 1.12)

Although Moses’ deference to Aaron is frequently attributed to Moses’ inability to speak fluently, perhaps he turned down God’s request that he lead the redemption of the Israelites in order to acknowledge Aaron’s pre-eminent birth order:

“Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Ex. 4:10)

God then commanded Aaron to speak for Moses: “You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth — I will be with you and with him as you speak, and tell both of you what to do — and he shall speak for you to the people.” (Ex 4:15-16)

A student of the Torah might imagine Moses’ hurt at later being bypassed for the position of high priest, an upset hinted in the contrasting admonitions of God to Moses: “Do not come closer.” (Deut 3:3) and “You shall bring forward Aaron your brother, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests.” (Ex 28:1) Nevertheless, multiple Midrash (Tanhuma, Shemot) passages are conciliatory about the displacement of Moses by Aaron:

• When God told Moses, “Now go, I shall send you to Pharaoh — this role is assigned to you” (Ex 3:10), Moses had answered, “Please my Lord, make someone else your messenger. You will cause my brother to resent me, since he is the elder, and yet you send me on this mission.” Then God said, “You are right that he is older than you — nevertheless, he will see you rejoice in his heart.” (Ex 4:14) Moses agreed to go.

• Moses told Aaron, “God has instructed me to appoint you as high priest.” Aaron replied, “You have labored so hard on the mishkan — the tabernacle — and I am made high priest!” Moses replied, “Even though you have become high priest, it is as though I had become high priest! Just as you rejoiced when I rose to greatness, so I rejoice in your greatness.”

• The same heart that rejoiced in the greatness of his brother, let precious stones be set upon it, as it is said, “And Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breastplate of decision over his heart.” (Ex 28:29) Thus, the words of the psalmist (85:22), “Faithfulness and truth meet; righteousness and peace kiss,” are seen as an allusion to the relationship between Moses and Aaron.

Because Moses became neither high priest nor king of Israel, the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah) provides him with recompense in the form of temporary appointment to each position, suggesting that Moses attained the priesthood when he officiated at the time of the dedication of the mishkan, and earned the kingship as noted in the Deuteronomic comment, “Then he became King in Jeshurun [a poetic name for Israel].” (Deut 33:5)

Tetzaveh, this week’s Torah portion, describes the creation of the mishkan and the preparation for a functioning priesthood. Aaron and his sons took their preeminent positions, overshadowing Moses, who watched from the sidelines. But because, except for a fleeting moment, Moses did not ascend to the exalted position of high priest or king, later generations of rabbis rewarded him. They elevated him with the title Moshe Rabbaynu, “Moses Our Teacher,” a well-deserved designation, because, among the many things that he taught to future generations, is the supreme notion that siblings ought not to compete but rather rejoice in each other’s accomplishments.

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in

San Francisco.