The "Sons" of Moses

May 23, 2011

5 min read


Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )

In its account of the genealogy of the tribes of Israel, the Torah outlines the offspring of Moses and Aaron. The Torah includes Aaron’s sons as being part of the offspring of Moses, as well as of Aaron.(1) Rashi explains that Aaron’s sons are described as the offspring of Moses because Moses taught them Torah, and one who teaches Torah to his friend’s son is considered to have given birth to him.(2)

The Maharal asks that Moses did not only teach Aaron’s sons, rather he taught all of the Jewish people, and yet we do not see that Moses is considered to have given birth to all of the Jewish people. He answers that Moses was commanded to teach the Jewish people, and he taught them that which he was instructed. However, he taught the sons of Aaron over and above what he was commanded. It is this Torah that he voluntarily taught them that earns him the merit of being considered to have given birth to them.(3)

Rav Yitzchak Berkovits proves from another episode in the Book of Bamidbar, that God wanted Moses to give of himself from his own volition. In the Torah portion of Pinchas, God instructs Moses to appoint Joshua as his successor. He tells Moses to place his hand on Joshua, but Moses places both hands on Joshua. Why did God only ask Moses to use one hand and why did Moses use both? Rav Berkovits answers that God wanted Moses, of his own volition, to lay the second hand on Joshua so that a significant part of Moshe’s transmission to Joshua would be voluntary.(4) Moshe understood this and acted accordingly.

It still needs to be explained why only a person who teaches someone voluntarily is considered to have given birth to him, but one who does so out of obligation is not given this accolade. Rav Berkovits explains that when a person has a child he gives part of himself into the new offspring, in that his genetic make-up constitutes a very significant part of this new being. When a person teaches someone Torah, he gives of his own spiritual make-up and puts that into his student. In that way, he is similar to one who has children, the only difference being that the true parent gives of his physical self, whereas the teacher gives of his spiritual self.

The Maharal’s explanation demonstrates further that a teacher is only considered to merit this level of giving of himself when he does it purely out of a desire to teach the person, and not simply because of obligation. This is because when a person teaches another out of a sense of obligation he is unable to totally give of himself, because his intention is not purely to spiritually influence the other person, rather it is also to fulfill his obligation. As a result, there is a qualitative lacking in the transmission process, to the extent that the Torah of the teacher is not fully internalized by the student. Therefore, the student is not considered to be the offspring of the teacher. However, when one teaches because of a desire to share the spiritual wonders of the Torah with another, then he is giving over of his own spiritual essence and this is transmitted to the student. Accordingly, the teacher is equivalent to the child’s parent.

The principle that there is a qualitative difference between Torah taught out of obligation and Torah taught out of one’s own volition applies to a wide variety of people and situations : A parent is obligated to teach his child Torah, but if he only acts out of his sense of obligation then the child will surely sense it and the transmission process will be hindered.

This lesson is not limited to parents and teachers. We are all placed in situations where we need to teach others some kind of lesson, and the motivating factors in doing this will play a key role in the effectiveness of the lessons transmitted. Secondly, the principle applies to all forms of giving, not just teaching Torah. Giving out of obligation is far less praiseworthy than giving out of a desire to help one’s fellow. The recipient of an act of kindness will often sense any feelings of compulsion in the giver and will feel discomfort for placing the giver in a situation he would rather not be in.(5). Furthermore, it seems clear that the principle that the great benefit of giving that it leads to greater love for the recipient is only limited to cases where one gives out of volition, and not out of obligation. Indeed, giving because one has no choice, often causes resentment. We have seen how Moses merited to have been considered to have given birth to Aaron’s sons because he taught them over and above his actual obligation. May we all merit to emulate Moses and voluntarily give over of our Torah and ourselves.


1. Bamidbar, 2:1.

2. Rashi, Bamdibar, 2:1.

3. Gur Aryeh, Bamidbar, 2:1, os 1.

4. It is evident that Moshe’s putting of the hand on Yehoshua represented him giving over his vast knowledge to Yehoshua, and by putting both hands on Yehoshua, Moshe gave even more than he was commanded.

5. See my essay on Parshas Re’eh, ‘The Value of Friendliness’ where we discussed this at length.





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