Sharing the Message
When the time came for Aharon to die, Moshe took Aharon himself and Elazar, Aharon’s oldest living son, up a mountain. Moshe divested Aharon of the special garments of the High Priest and put them on Elazar. With his own eyes, Aharon got to see his legacy safely and honorably passed on to the next generation. He was able to witness his son’s literally bearing the mantle of the priesthood.1 In this week’s parashah, God prepares Moshe to die as Aharon did, but Moshe’s death scene is not as sweet and satisfying as Aharon’s was. Moshe’s death does not, in fact, contain the most coveted element of Aharon’s passing: the promise of a qualified successor. However, the Rabbinic tradition shows how Moshe’s challenges in the realm of succession provided him with an opportunity to invest his replacement in a unique and instructive way. The tale of how Moshe graciously guided his student, Yehoshua, into his own place teaches an important lesson about how to step aside and encourage others, and also when we might need to step up and do more ourselves.
Just as Moshe did with Aharon, God invites Moshe up a mountain in order to let him know that he will die:
וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה עֲלֵה אֶל הַר הָעֲבָרִים הַזֶּה וּרְאֵה אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: וְרָאִיתָה אֹתָהּ וְנֶאֱסַפְתָּ אֶל עַמֶּיךָ גַּם אָתָּה כַּאֲשֶׁר נֶאֱסַף אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ:
God said to Moshe: Ascend this Mountain of Crossings, and see the land that I have given to Benei Yisrael. You will see it, and then you too will be gathered [in death] to your people, like your brother Aharon was gathered.
However, this is the only significant similarity between the deaths of these two brothers and partners. Unlike what was done for Aharon, God does not provide Moshe with clear instructions in how to pass on his leadership to anyone, let alone either of his sons. Instead of being guided in a process for transferring his authority, Moshe has to beg God to appoint someone to guide the people in his absence:
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל ה' לֵאמֹר: יִפְקֹד ה' אֱלֹהֵי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל בָּשָׂר אִישׁ עַל הָעֵדָה: אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא לִפְנֵיהֶם וַאֲשֶׁר יָבֹא לִפְנֵיהֶם וַאֲשֶׁר יוֹצִיאֵם וַאֲשֶׁר יְבִיאֵם וְלֹא תִהְיֶה עֲדַת ה' כַּצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר אֵין לָהֶם רֹעֶה:
Moshe spoke to God saying:2 God, God of the spirits of all flesh, should appoint a man over the people who will go before them and come before them, who will bring them out and bring them in, so that the people of God should not be like sheep without a shepherd.
To truly receive the type of death that Aharon received, after Moshe had scaled the mountain he would have been told that he was dying, he would have had the merit to pass on his role to his child, and then he would have immediately and gracefully passed away. But Moshe does not bequeath any honor to his children and Moshe does not die right away. Instead, Moshe has to search for a leader, appoint that leader, and watch this successor act in his stead while he is still alive. Moshe is panicked when facing the void of leadership that he sees coming.
The Sifrei points out, quite succinctly, that when God invites Moshe to die as Aharon did, saying וְנֶאֱסַפְתָּ אֶל עַמֶּיךָ גַּם אָתָּה כַּאֲשֶׁר נֶאֱסַף אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, then you too will be gathered [in death] to your people, like your brother Aharon was gathered, it could be understood as a promise to Moshe that he would die in the same manner as Aharon died. A death like Aharon’s is something that Moshe desperately wanted and that Moshe most certainly did not get:
ספרי במדבר פסקא קלו
מגיד שנתאוה משה למיתתו של אהרן, שנא' כאשר נאסף אהרן אחיך.
Sifrei BeMidbar #136
It tells us that Moshe desired having the death of Aharon, as it says, like your brother Aharon was gathered.
The phrase Like your brother Aharon points to the fact that Moshe very much wanted to die like Aharon, but that he sadly did not receive that blessing. But why not?! Why didn’t Moshe receive the death that he so desired? Why wasn’t he taken in the way that Aharon was? And, if Moshe’s death is so inferior to Aharon’s, why does the text compare the two? Why bring up Aharon in this context at all? The midrash in Avot deRabbi Natan3 retells and dramatizes this moment, explaining why Moshe did not die as Aharon did, and illustrating what happened instead:
אבות דרבי נתן נוסחא א פרק יז
"התקן עצמך ללמוד תורה שאינה ירושה לך." כיצד בשעה שראה משה רבינו [את בניו] שאין בהן תורה שיעמדו בנשיאות אחריו נתעטף ועמד בתפלה. אמר לפניו רבונו של עולם הודיעני את מי יכנס את מי יצא בראש כל העם הזה שנאמר וידבר משה אל ה' לאמר יפקד ה' אלהי הרוחות לכל בשר איש על העדה אשר יצא לפניהם ואשר יבא לפניהם (במדבר כז:טו-יז). אמר לו הקב"ה למשה משה קח לך את יהושע (שם שם יח). [א"ל הקב"ה למשה] לך ועמוד לו תורגמן וידרוש לפניך בראש גדולי ישראל.
Avot deRabbi Natan Version A 17
“Prepare yourself to learn Torah for it is not your inheritance” (Avot 2:12). How? When our teacher Moshe saw that his children who were not full of Torah would be next in line for leadership after him, he wrapped himself and stood in prayer. He said before [God]: Master of the Universe! Tell me who will enter and leave ahead of this people! As it says, Moshe spoke to God saying: God, God of the spirits of all flesh, should appoint a man over the people who will go before them and come before them (BeMidbar 27:15-17). The Holy Blessed One said to Moshe: Moshe, take Yehoshua. Go and appoint a turgeman [interpreter] for him and he will teach before you at the head of the greats of Israel.
This retelling on the part of Avot deRabbi Natan explains why Moshe could not have had the death that Aharon did. Aharon’s son, Elazar, was worthy of succeeding his father, but Moshe’s own children were not. To Moshe’s credit,4 he is aware of this, and asks God not to appoint his sons just because they’re his sons, but rather to find and appoint someone who is both worthy and prepared. Significantly, this midrash also records a very particular vision of how Moshe demonstrated to the people that he was passing the torch to Yehoshua: Moshe set him up to teach by giving Yehoshua an interpreter, a turgeman (referred to in Babylonian texts as a meturgeman).5
There are two basic types of meturgeman. The first is someone who acts as an almost simultaneous interpreter at the public reading of the Torah from Hebrew to the more commonly spoken language, Aramaic.6 The second, later model is the person who is present during public lectures, who amplifies both the volume and the content of the Torah that is being taught by the teacher.7 Moshe gives Yehoshua a meturgeman in this second mode. Moshe gives his assistant his own assistant as a concrete way to signify that Yehoshua is the new rabbi. By appointing someone to share Yehoshua’s message, Moshe gives Yehoshua all of the equipment that he needs to teach and lead effectively, the tools he needs in order to be heard.
Perhaps it is the significance of the meturgeman that explains why Aharon’s death is mentioned at this juncture. Maybe it is in honor of the memory of Aharon that Moshe chooses to inaugurate Yehoshua’s leadership with this gesture because, in many ways, Aharon was the meturgeman of Moshe. Moshe was uncomfortable speaking on his own, so God says to Moshe that his brother, Aharon, will speak for him, הוּא יִהְיֶה לְּךָ לְפֶה, he will be a mouthpiece for you (Shemot 4:16).
Midrash Sekhel Tov8 states explicitly that at this moment God appointed Aharon as a meturgeman for Moshe:
שכל טוב (בובר) שמות פרשת שמות פרק ד
ושמת את הדברים בפיו. כדרשן הזה שסודר את הדברים בפי המתורגמן.
הוא יהיה לך לפה. דהיינו מתורגמן בינך לבין העם:
Midrash Sekhel Tov (Buber) Shemot 4
You shall place the words in his mouth. Like this teacher of Torah, who arranges his words in the mouth of the meturgeman.
He will be a mouthpiece for you. That is, a meturgeman between you and the people.
Being Moshe’s meturgeman is a uniquely significant job, for in Moshe both models of the meturgeman—as the explainer of the written Torah, Torah SheBikhtav, and as a loudspeaker for the Torah of the Rabbis, Torah SheB’al Peh—are united. What Moshe teaches as his Torah we know of as the Torah. In Moshe, the Oral and Written Torahs are identical. Moshe’s Torah SheB’al Peh is Torah SheBikhtav. The person who speaks for Moshe represents the fullest expression of what it means to teach Torah in a way that a listener can hear and a learner can understand.
This is true about Moshe’s meturgeman, because Moshe himself is the meturgeman of God. We hear God’s Torah in Moshe’s words, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה.9 Without Moshe’s interpretation and amplification, without the involvement of his person, the Torah would not speak in human language and we would not be able to hear the Divine voice. The example of Moshe underscores that it is a mistake to think of the meturgeman as someone who is merely a piece of assistive equipment, nothing more than a microphone. Were it not for the meturgeman, the lesson would not be shared and the Torah would not be understood. A great teacher is only as great as her effectiveness as a communicator. Even God, the greatest teacher, relied on someone else to communicate His message clearly and effectively, to make the Divine light visible, and the still small voice audible to the human ear.
When Moshe appointed a meturgeman for Yehoshua, he was not only elevating him to a position of greatness, but he was also teaching him an important lesson modeled by his own path in leadership: Moshe was not selfish with his status and honor.10 Moshe was happy to share his power with the other elders and the other prophets of the camp.11 Moshe’s way of using his meturgeman was consistent with the Rambam’s recommendation:
רמב"ם הלכות תלמוד תורה ד:ג
ולא יגביה הרב קולו, יותר מקול המתרגם; ולא יגביה המתרגם קולו בעת ששואל את הרב, יותר מקול הרב.
Rambam Hilkhot Talmud Torah 4:3
The teacher should not raise his voice louder than the voice of the interpreter and the interpreter should not raise his voice louder than the teacher when he is relaying a question to the teacher.
A good teacher and meturgeman relationship is respectful and equal. They each respect the role that the other plays, realizing that effective teaching is a result of their shared partnership.
Understanding the centrality of the role of the meturgeman should encourage us to evaluate whether we are contributing and sharing our talents and ideas in the best way possible. Is there someone whose insight would make my thinking better? Is there someone whose language will make this idea more beautiful or more accessible, more sensitive or more real? Is there someone whose voice can carry my message to more people or to different places?
As we ask these questions we should also consider the ways in which we can support, clarify, and amplify the work of those who surround us. When Moshe appointed a meturgeman for Yehoshua, he demonstrated that meriting a mouthpiece is an indication that one has something of great value to share. Our understanding that God used a meturgeman, and no one less than Moshe, should invite us to try to identify the places and ways that we can serve as interpreters and sharers of insights and gifts that are not our own. To be a meturgeman is to be entrusted with an incredibly challenging, meaningful, unique, and sacred task, a role that we should feel honored to fill for one another.
Wishing you a Shabbat of clear and shared communication.
1 BeMidbar 20:23-29.
2 This is the only time in the Torah where this phrase appears, a reversal of וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר, God spoke to Moshe saying.
3 Avot deRabbi Natan is a midrashic commentary on Mishnah Avot, designed to be like a Gemara to this tractate of Mishnah. It exists in two versions, “A” and “B.” Generally version B is considered to be the older version (redacted around the 8th or 9th century, probably after the Babylonian Talmud), but version A was the more popular, especially in medieval Europe.
4 Less to Moshe’s credit, there is a strong midrashic tradition that Moshe abandoned his own family in order to lead the people, which might have contributed to the lack of Torah found in his own sons. For example, see Sifrei BeMidbar #99.
5 It is unlikely that the proper way to read this text is as Yehoshua’s being appointed the turgeman for three reasons. First, the language of לו implies that something is done for Yehoshua, not to him. If Yehoshua were becoming the turgeman, the text would have said ועמוד אותו, not ועמוד לו. Second, the role of a turgeman is not an upgrade to Yehoshua’s current role as Moshe’s student. The turgeman doesn’t deliver the derashot; at best, he explains them. Third, this tradition appears elsewhere in the Eisenstein Otzar MaMidrashim collection. There it is clear that a turgeman is being appointed for Yehoshua, and the turgeman is identified as Kalev, Yehoshua’s co-spy! “והעמיד עליו מתורגמן לדרוש בפני כל ישראל, ומי היה המתורגמן? כלב בן יפונה.”
6 The printed Aramaic translations of the Torah, the Targumim, were likely compiled to facilitate and/or eventually replace the role of a live human translator.
7 This role, as a speaker, is the original meaning of the term Amora, later applied to the Rabbis active in the centuries after the time period of the Mishnah.
8 This is a midrashic collection compiled in the 12th century, of which only parts of Bereishit and Shemot are extant.
9 BeMidbar 17:5.
10 In fact, if Moshe had been overly concerned with his honor, he would not have been content to pass the mantle of leadership on to anyone but his sons, regardless of how qualified or unqualified his own children were.
11 See BeMidbar 11:25-29.