Numbers The Power of Teaching Torah
Parashat B’midbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)
Last Sunday, I had the privilege to witness some of my most cherished friends and beloved classmates become rabbis. The magic of Hebrew College ordination is something that everyone should experience firsthand. The room is filled with family and friends, song, laughter, and joy. As I watched eleven colleagues take on their new status, I was reminded of a verse from this week’s parasha, BaMidbar. The first Torah portion in the book of Numbers finds the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai, before they begin their journey to the Holy Land. As Moses and Aaron conduct a census of the whole Israelite community, the Torah states:
וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֥ת אַהֲרֹ֖ן וּמֹשֶׁ֑ה בְּי֗וֹם דִּבֶּ֧ר ה’ אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֖ה בְּהַ֥ר סִינָֽי׃
These are the generations of Aaron and Moses at the time that God spoke with Moses at Mount Sinai. (Numbers 3:1)
Six times in the book of Genesis, the phrase “these are the generations” (אֵ֛לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֥ת) appears, to introduce the genealogy of a significant figure. However, outsider of Genesis, that phrase only appears once more, in this week’s parasha. But what is really surprising, is that the next verse proceeds to list Aaron’s sons and only Aaron’s sons.
וְאֵ֛לֶּה שְׁמ֥וֹת בְּֽנֵי־אַהֲרֹ֖ן הַבְּכ֣וֹר ׀ נָדָ֑ב וַאֲבִיה֕וּא אֶלְעָזָ֖ר וְאִיתָמָֽר׃
These were the names of Aaron’s sons: Nadab, the first-born, and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. (Numbers 3:2)
Why mention Moses if the Torah omits the names of his descendants, and only includes the sons of Aaron? The Sages of the Talmud provide an answer in Sanhedrin 19b.
אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני א”ר יונתן כל המלמד בן חבירו תורה מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו ילדו שנאמר (במדבר ג, א) ואלה תולדות אהרן ומשה וכתיב ואלה שמות בני אהרן לומר לך אהרן ילד ומשה לימד לפיכך נקראו על שמו
Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani says that Rabbi Yonatan says: Anyone who teaches another person’s child Torah, the verse ascribes him credit as if they sired them, as it is stated: “Now these are the generations of Aaron and Moses” (Numbers 3:1), and it is written immediately afterward: “And these are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadav the firstborn and Avihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar” (Numbers 3:2), but it does not mention the names of Moses’ children. This serves to say to you that Aaron sired his children, but Moses taught them Torah. Therefore, the children were also called by his name.
Wow. As I watched my friends step more fully into their roles as teachers of Torah, I couldn’t help but imagine the impact they will have on the world. Their love and erudition and kindness will be channelled through their teaching of Torah. The potential exists for them to have as much impact on the lives of their students as a parent can have on a child. What a privilege and what a responsibility.
So how many people can one hope to positively impact through the teaching of Torah? Numbers 3:2 only lists Aaron’s four sons. Perhaps we should give over our learning to only a select few, rather than seek a broader impact? Commenting on a verse later in the book of Numbers (11:2), the Or HaChaim, Chayyim ibn Attar (1696 – 1743 CE), connects the teaching in Sanhedrin 19b to the mystical understanding that all the souls of the generation of Israelites who marched through the wilderness were “branches” of Moses’ own soul and that he was considered the father of all those souls.
So Moses’s impact is much broader than the four sons of Aaron. He taught Torah to a whole generation in the wilderness and following the reasoning of the Or HaChaim, they are all his spiritual descendants.
And that is what really struck me on Sunday, as I watched a new cohort of thoughtful, brilliant rabbis be ordained by Hebrew College. The branches of our tree grow wider, more diverse, and more beautiful every year. Rooted in Torah, reaching toward the light, there are eleven souls venturing out into the world this week as rabbis, who will touch even more souls. May they be blessed, and may their teachers and students be blessed.
In the words of Kaddish D’Rabbanan:
Upon Israel, and upon our sages, and upon their disciples, and upon all the disciples of their disciples, and upon all those who occupy themselves with the Torah, here or in any other place, upon them and upon you, may there be abundant peace, grace, kindness, compassion, long life, ample sustenance and deliverance, from their Father in heaven; and Let us say, Amen.
Rabbi Daniel Schaefer was ordained by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2018. He currently serves as assistant rabbi at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, MA.