In the moments leading up to Moshe and Aharon’s
confrontation with Pharaoh, the Torah took a brief “pause in action” for a
took to his wife his father’s sister Yokheved, and she bore him Aharon and
Taken on its own,
the lineageis simple and straightforward. Contrasting this detailed
presentation to its initial rendition, however, reveals something deeper:
man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. (Shemot 2:1)
There is a
deliberate shift from anonymity – “a man of the house of Levi and a Levite
woman,” to a clear mention of names – “Amram, Yokheved, Aharon and Moshe.”
Interestingly, Sefer Shemot – “The Book of Names” inversely began with
“all the names who came to Egypt,” but then summarized the list with the nameless
number of “seventy souls” (1:1-4). And this contrast between “names” and
“numbers” was perhaps most pronounced as Am Yisrael began their march in
the wilderness, in Sefer Bemidbar, or Sefer HaPikudim – “The Book
of Numbers,” and God commanded that Moshe lead a census “by the number of
the names” (Bemidbar l1:2). What message underlies this consistent contrast
between anonymous numbers and pronounced names in the makeup of Am Yisrael?
Near the turn of
the 21st century, columnist David Brooks penned a thoughtful article
regarding the general culture surrounding the elite young men and women of the
day. He referred to them as “organization kids,” bemoaning their unflinching
acceptance of the social order of society. Whereas the ambitious young men and women
of the latter half of the 20th Century “knew they were supposed to
rebel against authority, reject old certainties, and liberate themselves from
hidebound customs and prejudices,” the youth of today are “cooperative team
players,” they “accept authority” and are “rule followers.” While each of these
traits is, of course, positive in its own right, understanding the way to
success as the absolute adherence to these trends has suspended a moral
development that is oftentimes born out of a fight for our individual ideals.
Brooks wrote that today, sadly, “Instead of virtue we talk about
It remains a
challenge, however, to tow the line between a genuine expression of our own
thoughts and beliefs – establishing our name, while at once belonging to
a collective that is far greater than ourselves – being a part of the count.
God introduced the process toward redemption from Egypt to Moshe, Aharon and
all of Am Yisrael with that very challenge.
“True belonging is
the spiritual practice of believing in and belong to yourself so deeply that
you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in
both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness,” Brené
Brown wrote, adding, “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are;
it requires you to be who you are.”
R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l similarly reflected upon the dichotomy
between the individual and community in the realm of kedushah:
“If the community were the only source of sanctity, then the individual would
be deprived of his creative role, his individual initiative, his originality
and uniqueness. The outstanding person would not be able to develop into a
great leader.” Individual kedushah experiences, in contrast, are
incommensurate with each other, they are “an expression of one’s greatness, and
not all people are alike as far as greatness is concerned.”
kabbalstic tradition maintains that there are “six hundred thousand aspects and
meanings in the Torah” – a number corresponding to the men who left Egypt –
“the primary souls of Israel.”R. Yisshak Luria, the Ari z”l,
added that in the messianic age every member of Am Yisrael will read the
Torah in accordance with “the meaning peculiar to his root.”
Understood on its most simple (and incorrect) level, this concept refers to a
religious anarchy. After all, if every person holds an individual key to
interpret the Torah, then we are each governed only by the strength of absolute
subjectivity. Properly understood, however, this tradition teaches that
although there is an objectively binding extrinsic dimension to the
Torah, the internal realm is left to the individual. “Some lives have an
emotional emphasis; others, an intellectual; for some the way of joy is
natural; for others, existence is full of effort and struggle,” R. Adin
Steinsaltz wrote, “each soul understands and does things in a way not suitable
for another soul.”
The passages regarding
the beginning of Am Yisrael transition from explicit namesto
anonymity and numbers – and then back again. The Torah subtly taught that
membership to Am Yisrael entails a dual acceptance: the absolute
strictures of this “nation of numbers” – a scrupulous adherence to Torah and missvot,
and a genuine expression of our “personal names” – a unique connection to
God reflective of our individual souls.
 David Brooks, “The
Organization Kid,” The Atlantic, Apr. 2001, pg. 40-54.
 Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for
Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 40.
 R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Vision
and Leadership: Reflections on Joseph and Moses (Jersey City, NJ, 2013),
 R. Yisshak Luria, Sefer
HaKavanot, 53b. Cited and developed in Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah
and its Symbolism (New York, NY, 1996), pg. 12 and 65.
 R. Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz,
The Thirteen Petalled Rose: A Discourse on the Essence of Jewish Existence
& Belief (New Milford, CT, 1996), pg. 56.
As Yaakov neared
his death, he called his sons to his bedside and said:
together so that I may tell you what will happen to you at the end of days.” (Bereshit 49:1)
Yaakov then blessed
each of his sons individually. He referenced their respective strengths and
weaknesses while hinting to them what lay ahead in their future. The Hakhamim
paid careful attention to Yaakov’s initial will to “tell what will happen at
the end of days.” They described it as an unfulfilled desire:
[Yaakov] wished to reveal to them the end of Yisrael’s exile, but the Shekhinah
departed from him and he began to speak of other things.
Instead of simply
omitting Yaakov’s failed attempt to expose that prophecy, the Torah made a
vague reference to it. It thus hinted at a particular importance to this
occurrence. What was the significance of this “concealed revelation”?
The great 19th
Century Jewish thinker R. Sadok of Lublin dedicated much time and effort to
understanding the historical transition from the stage of prophecy to that of Torah
she-be’al peh (the Oral Torah) during the period of the second bet
hamikdash. “All the wisdom of the oral Torah consists of apprehending truth
from darkness,” he wrote, “but in the era of the indwelling of the divine
presence in Israel, the Jews did not condescend to perception through darkness
According to R. Sadok, the end of prophecy brought forth a particular
“darkness” – the neglect and near-forgetting of the oral Torah. Paradoxically,
however, that darkness was necessary for the light and genius of the pillars of
Torah she-be’al peh (the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah and rabbis of
the Mishnah) to shine forth. Whereas prophecy and overt miracles stunted creativity,
causing people to think that “if it wasn’t revealed, then it can’t be true,”
their absence opened the potential for individual thought and interpretation.
example, the difference between a class in which the instructor speaks the entire
time, elucidating every point and detail, and a lesson where the teacher provides
the framework and basic principles but entrusts the students to discover the
information on their own. The former structure displays a “bright light” shined
by the instructor, but leaves the students with little room for self-thought
and expression. This model represents the era of divine revelation. The “hands
off” model, in contrast, reinforces the pupils’ creative capacities, forcing
them to think independently and develop the lesson on their own. The enveloping
“darkness” rendered by the end of prophecy likewise opened the crack through
which the “light” of creativity and human insight could shine.
discuss a similar dichotomy in the way that we are moved by any given stimulus.
Following the occurrence of something in our lives, we have the choice to react
or to respond.Reacting refers to our reflex – dealt the hand of a difficult situation,
for example, we become depressed and sulk in the thought of an ominous future.
Learning by means of prophecy likewise precipitates a reaction – “we
hear and we accept.” Responding, in contrast, refers to choosing how to
deal with the difficulty. It requires self-strength, courage, and the
appropriate insight for planning out a course of action. Growth during an era
bereft of prophecy necessitates responding – sparking the lights of
novelty within a context of darkness.
The Hakhamim taught
that Yaakov wanted to expose his vision of the end of exile, but that the divine
presence departed before he could do so. Yaakov’s will at that time was to react,
relating God’s revelation to his sons. As the Shekhinah vanished from
the scene, however, Yaakov was forced to respond. Foreshadowing the
manner of the hakhmei ha-masoret many years later, Yaakov then tapped
into his own creative capacity. He thought about the strengths and weaknesses
of each of his sons, and sensitively charted out a future for them and their
I am sometimes troubled
by the difficulties of living during a time of hester panim (divine
concealment). I find myself yearning for “the times of old,” when God publicly
exposed “His face,” leaving little room for doubt or uncertainty. I then remind
myself, however, of God’s lesson to Yaakov during those critical moments before
his death. By removing His presence from Yaakov, God hinted at the paradoxical
detriment of constant revelation. He taught that the greatest depths of
understanding and connection are attained specificallywithin the
context of “darkness.” It is only then that we are forced to “dig deep,” inspired
to search for and find Him with all of our hearts and minds.
Commentary of Rashi,
Bereshit 49:1 s.v. ve-agidah.
 R. Sadok HaCohen of Lublin, Resisei Layla (Bnei
Brak, IS, 1967), pg 160-1.
 For a full analysis of R Sadok
of Lublin’s thought on this matter, see R. Yaakov Elman’s “R. Zadok HaKohen on
the History of Halakha,” Tradition 21:4, pg. 1-26. Cf. Moshe Koppel, Meta-Halakhah:
Logic Intuition and the Unfolding of Jewish Law (Lanham, MA, 1997), pg.
52-5 and R. Netanel Wiederblank, Illuminating Jewish Thought: Explorations
of Free Will, the Afterlife and the Messianic Era (New Milford, CT, 2018),
 See, e.g. Stephen R. Covey, The
Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character of Ethic
(New York, NY, 1989), pg. 70-1 and 309-10, and, most recently Lori Gottlieb, Maybe
You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed
(New York, NY, 2019), pg. 288-94.