In Parashat Vaeira, when the Torah mentions Moses and Aaron, Aaron is listed first and followed by Moses. Rashi (1040 – 1105) comments that the order of this list is the reverse of the order in which they are listed elsewhere in the Torah and concludes that there is in fact no general rule throughout the Torah as to which brother is listed first. Rashi explains, based on the Midrash, that their order is intentionally inconsistent to teach that the two brothers were actually equally great. This explanation seems to contradict the entire Torah narrative, which clearly portrays Moses as the leading protagonist and the one chosen by the Almighty to take the Jews out of Egypt, receive the Torah, and lead the nation through the desert.
Rabbi Moses Feinstein (1895 – 1986) addresses this issue in his writings by redefining in what sense the two brothers were equals. Rabbi Feinstein acknowledges the discrepancy between their accomplishments, citing the idea that Moses was the “father” of all the prophets (including Aaron, who was also a prophet). Moses definitely had greater potential and talents, and he was therefore burdened with more responsibility. Aaron was as great as Moses, he suggests, not in terms of what he had accomplished but in terms of his virtue. Both Moses and Aaron, although they each had their own individual capabilities, both fully utilized whatever potential they had to the best of their ability. They both virtuously fulfilled their own personal life missions and in that sense they were equal. This suggests that in the eyes of the Torah, every single person, with his or her own life circumstances, talents, and resources, has their own unique mission in life. Their success is not measured by what that mission is, but rather by how fully they use their unique qualities to complete that mission. Aaron, Moses; Moses, Aaron.
A greater, broader lesson that emerges, is the validation of each and every person’s right to individualism in Torah thought. What’s peculiar is that of all things that the Torah is known for, individualism doesn’t seem to be one of them! With the Bible’s extensive legal demands that control and regulate nearly all areas of private and communal life, how can there be room for each person’s assertion of what is unique about his or herself?
An approach to understanding the Torah’s nuanced stance can be gleaned from an idea expressed by contemporary educator, scholar, and philosopher Mortimer J. Adler (1902 – 2001). He writes: “Not everyone understands that being an artist consists in operating according to rules. People point to a highly original painter or sculptor and say, “He isn’t following rules. He’s doing something entirely original, something that has never been done before, something for which there are no rules.” But they fail to see what rules it is that the artist follows. There are no final, unbreakable rules, strictly speaking, for making a painting or sculpture. But there are rules for preparing canvas and mixing paints and applying them, and for molding clay or welding steel. Those rules the painter or sculptor must have followed, or else he could not have made the thing he has made. No matter how original his final production, no matter how little it seems to obey the “rules” of art as they have traditionally been understood, he must be skilled to produce it (How to Read a Book, pg 53). ” According to this idea, rules can actually be a necessary springboard for self-expression. The New York Times¹, on June 23, 1972, cited a similar idea in the name of the great Torah luminary, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903–1993):
Earlier this week, Rabbi Soloveitchik received a visitor in his study in Brookline and in the living room of his daughter’s home nearby, and gave some of his views of present-day Judaism. He described himself as a shy person and denied that he was an “authority” in the usual sense of the word. “I have many pupils, I have many disciples, but I never impose my views on anyone,” he said.
“Judaism,” he continued, “is a society of free and independent men and women bound by a single commitment and vision.”
The Torah’s careful ordering of Moses and Aaron’s names tells us that once we have established lives that relate appropriately to mankind and to God, we must all be original artists as we paint the unique canvases of our lives.
¹ Quoted in Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Aaron. From Washington Avenue to Washington Street. Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 2011