Motivating the Leadership of Israel – Plan B
A Difficult Verse
The Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, and He commanded them concerning the Israelites and concerning Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to bring the Israelites out of the land of Egypt (Exod. 6:13).
On its own, this verse is simple enough. It seems to be an introduction or a transition of some sort, leading the reader into the story of Moses and Aaron speaking to Pharaoh and demanding the release of the Israelites. However, its placement and significance are extremely puzzling. Here is the verse again, this time in context:
10 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 11 “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.” 12 But Moses appealed to the Lord, saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of uncircumcised lips!” 13 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron and He commanded them concerning the Israelites and concerning Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to bring the Israelites out of the land of Egypt. 14 These are the heads of their respective houses. The sons of Reuben…
Read in context, v. 13 is a confounding verse. Is this communication to Moses and Aaron somehow in response to Moses’ appeal not to have to speak to Pharaoh because of his speech impediment? Is the communication “concerning Pharaoh” somehow different than the previous one? Oddly, this verse is, in itself, an independent paragraph (specifically, a parasha setuma), making it a freestanding section, but how does one make sense of that?
When we proceed to the next paragraph (vv. 14-28), we find a genealogy of the families of Reuben, Simeon and Levi abruptly inserted into the narrative here. In addition to the oddity of having a genealogy covering only three tribes, the placement of this section is strange. If the Torah wishes to explain who Moses and Aaron are, genealogically speaking, surely, this list belongs earlier: at Moses’ first appearance in chapter 2, the burning bush in chapter 3, Aaron’s first appearance in chapter 4 or their first encounter with Pharaoh in Chapter 5.
Referring back to the previous brief paragraph, vv. 10-12, we find God sending Moses to Pharaoh and Moses complaining to God about his uncircumcised lips. This exchange is repeated almost verbatim in vv. 29-30. Whatever v. 13 is meant to do, it does not seem to solve Moses’ problem. It seems to be the epitome of a non-sequitur.
Rabbinic sources struggle with this verse and try to explain what it is that God commands Moses and Aaron at this point.
Suggestion 1 – Against Idolatry
Coming at the problem from a different angle, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (Pischa 5) notes that in an earlier verse (v. 9) we are told that the Israelites did not listen to Moses because of their weariness. The Mekhilta challenges this: “Does anyone really hear good news and not react with happiness?” Therefore, the Mekhilta suggests, this was probably not the real reason the Israelites ignored Moses. Rather, the real reason was their attachment to idolatry.
Having made this leap, the Mekhilta now has an explanation for what the enigmatic command in v. 13. God takes the opportunity to command Moses and Aaron about how it is forbidden for the Hebrews to worship other gods. If they abandon their idolatry, God is suggesting, they will be more open to Moses and Aaron’s message. According to this, the command would be the first (two) of the Ten Commandments: worshipping God and eschewing idols. 
Suggestion 2 – Advanced Warning
Instead of tying God’s statement in the verse to a commandment, Sifrei Numbers (91) associates it with Numbers 11:12 and Moses’ lament, “Yet You have said to me, ‘Carry it in your bosom,’ as a fosterer carries an infant, to the land which You swore to its ancestors.” Where did God tell Moses this? In Exodus 6:13. This is what God tells Moses and Aaron: “Know that they are recalcitrant and burdensome; you must accept them with the knowledge that that they will curse you and stone you.”
Suggestion 3 – Freeing Hebrew Slaves
The Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashana 3:5 [58d]) writes:
Said Rabbi Samuel bar Rav Isaac: “’The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron and He commanded them concerning the Israelites.’ Regarding what did He command them? Regarding the parasha about sending out slaves.”
What is the meaning of this suggestion? In his commentary (Korban HaEdah ad loc.), Rabbi David Fränkel (c. 1704-1762, Berlin) explains that God gives Moses the law curtailing the enslavement of Hebrews by other Hebrews (Exod. 20:2). The merit of having such a law is what makes Israel worthy of being freed from their masters. According to this, the command Moses and Aaron receive is the command to emancipate the Hebrew slave after six years, what ultimately becomes the first of the Sinaitic statutes (mishpatim).
Suggestion 4 – Appointing Moses and Aaron over the Tribal Leaders
Ultimately, the above suggestions are homiletic maneuvers that take this verse as, essentially, a hyperlink, a reference to other texts in other books. Nevertheless, they do little to establish its context in the section of the Torah where it sits. However, Exodus Rabba (7:3) does offer a suggestion that connects this verse to what follows.
Rabbi Jacob says: “What does ‘and he commanded them (vayetzavem)’ mean? The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: “Make their heads (roshim) your partners,” for so you find afterwards that it is written, “These are the heads of (roshei) their fathers’ houses.”
Rabbi Jacob seems to be interpreting the word “tzivah” not as “command” but as “appoint,” a secondary meaning of the word (see Num. 34:29; 36:2, Deut. 31:14). In other words, Rabbi Jacob reads the verse as God appointing Moses and Aaron “over Israel,” telling them to make the heads of the Israelites part of their plan. This would assist them in getting the people to listen to them, which is what Moses was concerned about in the previous section. It is this suggestion that I wish to explore in the next section.
Exploring Rabbi Jacob’s Interpretation: Abandoning the Elders for the Tribal Heads
In order to understand the significance of the shift from elders to nobles, we must consider two competing concepts of leadership in the Torah: that of the nesi’im (princes; singular:nasi) and that of the zekenim (elders; singular: zaken). A nasi is a nobleman, an aristocratic figure; in Numbers it generally refers to the head of a tribe. A zaken, on the other hand, is a sage. Although the person need not be old in fact, the image of a zaken is that of an older person filled with wisdom. Even when these terms are first used in Genesis, we find this distinction: Ishmael fathers “twelve princes by their nations” (25:16) and Hamor is “the prince of the land” (34:2), while Abraham’s anonymous majordomo is “the elder of his house” (24:2).
The distinction between elder and prince is most striking in the Book of Numbers, where the Torah names the dozen tribal princes repeatedly, while the mysterious zekenim are never named (although it is made clear in 11:16 that they are to be identified with the “officers of Israel” beaten for their people under Pharaoh). It is not even clear how many there are; they are simply gathered (Exod. 3:16, 4:29; Num. 11:16, 24), sometimes in groups of seventy (e.g. Exod. 24:1), but we never encounter them as individuals. There is no independent term for older people in general, i.e. not in leadership positions; the term is always zaken/zekenim. The natural assumption of the Torah is that the seniors among the nation will be its leaders.
The nesi’im are different: they are roshim, heads, as their position is defined in the first chapter of Numbers, when they are first named: “each man is the rosh of his fathers’ house.” What is their first official mission? They are to take a census — literally “raise (naso) the head (rosh)” — of “all who go out with the host” according to “their generations, by their families, by their father’s houses.” This will determine the encampments in the desert, the order of march and the ranks of battle.
In this genealogy, we find each of these terms:
“These are the heads of their fathers’ houses… these are the families of Reuben… these are the families of Simeon. And these are the names of the Levites by their generations… These are the heads of the fathers of the Levites by their families.”
In fact, the main difference between 6:13 and 6:26-27, which precede and follow the genealogy respectively, is that Moses and Aaron are now commanded: “Bring out the Israelites from the land of Egypt by their hosts (al tzivotam)” — reiterated in another one-verse paragraph (12:51) when they actually leave.
At this stage in the narrative, the noncompliance of the Israelites ceases to be a problem. Why? According to Rabbi Jacob’s interpretation, Moses now has an alternative route to their hearts: via their heads, rather than the grass roots, the elders. Just as Reuben and Simeon maintain their patriarchal structure from Jacob’s time, so do the other tribes, and Moses can make use of them.
Reading the text through the lens of Rabbi Jacob, I would further suggest that the genealogy stresses Aaron’s family connections to Nachshon son of Amminadab (his brother-in-law, Exod. 6:23), named in Numbers (1:7, 2:3) as the Prince of Judah. Granted, Nachshon is not referred to here as nasi; the term is introduced in Exodus only in the narrative of the manna (16:22; cf. 22:27, 34:31, 35:27). Nevertheless, as Nachshon’s is the only sororal relationship mentioned, it must have significance. Aaron, who is a brother-in-law of a prince of Judah and sometimes himself presented as a prince (e.g. Numbers 17, cf. 3:32 ibid. and Exod. 4:14) is thus integral to Moses’ mission, and not just as an orator.
Bringing It All Together
Moses needs to resort to this top-down aristocratic/military authority of the nesi’im structure at this point in the narrative because he has utterly failed to make his case to the zekenim. In chapter 3, at the burning bush, Moses’ power base is supposed to be the elders of the nation. There, Moses does not need a staff, in either sense of the word; his invocation of God’s pekida(taking account) suffices without Aaron. The people — their elders, their matriarchs, their sons and daughters — are on his side. The Exodus from Egypt is described as inspiring and enriching — literally, as well as figuratively.
In chapter 4, however, Moses demurs and the Exodus is reimagined. Now he must establish his bona fides by performing signs, and he needs all the accouterments of the conjuror, from his magic wand to his lovely assistant. For the first time, we are told that Pharaoh’s heart will be strengthened and that the firstborn will die. Even as Moses and Aaron do their tricks, we see the beginnings of trouble: the elders are indeed gathered, but it is only the people who are impressed.
In chapter 5, we see the elders’ true feelings on the matter. They do not accompany Moses and Aaron to exhort Pharaoh; instead, they confront the brothers when they leave. By the beginning of chapter 6, this attitude has filtered down to the people; they can no longer tolerate Moses due to their “shortness of breath and hard labor” — the same predicament for which the officers-elders have been lashed. It is in light of this that Moses must now appeal to the tribal heads through Aaron’s family connections. Indeed, this will have many ramifications throughout the Book of Exodus and the Torah as a whole.
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Rabbi Yoseif Bloch is an Orthodox rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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