Earning our Luck (Parashat Vaera)

Earning our Luck (Parashat Vaera)

One of my favorite characters in the Bible and one of the most underrated is Aaron, Moses’s brother. In this week’s portion Aaron takes up his role as Moses’s mouthpiece to Pharaoh. As a reminder, the Israelites are now enslaved in Egypt. God appears to Moses and asks him to go to Pharaoh and seek freedom for the Jews. However, Moses is afraid; he has never been one with words. In fact, Moses has a speech impediment which makes this sort of advocacy difficult. So, instead of choosing someone else, God appoints Aaron to speak the words his brother Moses cannot.

Thus begins an important and illustrious career for Aaron. He strands beside Moses, proclaiming freedom to Pharoah. When the Bible says that Moses is speaking, it is actually Aaron who is talking. Aaron warns Pharoah about the plagues of frogs, locusts, blood, boils, and darkness. Aaron tells the Jewish people to paint their doorposts with blood to mark which houses the Angel of Death should “pass over.” Soon, the Jews are freed and Aaron stands beside Moses on Mount Sinai as his brother encounters God and receives the law. Then, Aaron is given the gift of the priesthood. He will not only be Moses’ mouthpiece but the people’s as well. Through sacrifice he will become the conduit whereby the people will find connection and contact with the Divine. Aaron would die, the second most important person in the Exodus narrative behind his brother Moses.

Interestingly, Aaron was never meant to rise to this level of prominence. His position as Moses’s mouthpiece and his role as the High Priest of the Jewish people were not due to his merit. Rather, Aaron got the job when it was taken away from his brother Moses as punishment for his insolence. The Midrash teaches:

All seven days while Moses was at the Burning Bush, God urged him, “Go on My mission,” and Moses answered, “Send by the hand of someone else!” (4:13). This was repeated every day. Then God said to him, “I am telling you, ‘Go!’ and you tell Me, ‘Send by the hand of someone else!’ As you live, tomorrow I will pay you back! When the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is constructed, you will expect to become High Priest, and I will tell you, ‘Call Aaron to be appointed High Priest!” This is why it is said “Moses called Aaron and his sons…” (Lev 9:1). (Tanchuma Shemini 3).

Aaron becomes Moses’ mouthpiece because his brother is too afraid to speak to Pharaoh on his own. In turn, God chooses Aaron as High Priest as a way to disciple Moses. Moses should have been both the political and spiritual leader of the Jewish people but his fears got in the way. Choosing to castigate him, God stole part of his destiny and gave it to Aaron.

In fact, when God told this to Moses, God showed him little pity. According to one Midrash, God tells Moses (in essence), “I could have made your brother High Priest without telling you...at least I am informing you of my decision.” Feeling for Moses, our Rabbis liken his plight to a man who divorces his wife and forces her to help him find her own replacement (Shemot Rabbah: 37:4).

Yet, while it is easy to think of Moses in this moment of vindictive transition, it is important not to forget the pain God’s decision might cause Aaron. Aaron never asked for this opportunity. He is a good guy. Our tradition calls him a rodef shalom, a pursuer of peace because he used to seek out disputants before a court case and implore them to settle their dispute before legal intervention would be sought (Talmud Sanhedrin 6b).  Because of this, he would never have entertained openly hurting his brother.

God’s decision to invest Aaron with the priesthood must have come with an incredible amount of guilt. His gain was a direct result of Moses' loss.  Ironically this guilt was misplaced. Our Rabbis go out of their way to say that Moses is happy for Aaron’s success. According to one teaching:

Each loved the other, each cherished the other. Thus, when Moses was given the kingship and Aaron the high priesthood, not only was neither brother envious of the other, but each rejoiced in the distinction accorded to the other. You can see for yourself that it was so. For you find that when the Holy One told Moses, “Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharoah” (Ex 3:10), Moses replied, “O Lord, make someone else your messenger” (Exodus 4:13). Come you suppose Moses held back because he did not wish to go? Not at all. He spoke as he did out of respect for Aaron. For Moses said to himself: Before I appeared, my brother Aaron prophesized to Israel in Egypt for eighty years…So Moses said to God: Aaron has been prophesizing to Israel during all those years – am I now to enter my brother’s domain, and he be made to grieve?  (Tanhuman, Shemot 24)

Sadly, there is no indication that Aaron knew of Moses’ support. Instead, one is left assuming that Aaron only saw one thing: he had received his authority by the luck of being Moses’ back-up. Though Aaron certainly had merits, one must imagine that he, being human like the rest of us, would have made a cardinal mistake in assessing his own virtue. He would have seen the circumstances of his rise as playing a larger role than his inherent worth.

Success and luck are inextricably linked. However, we don’t often like to admit how intertwined the two are. The longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve seen that without lucky breaks one cannot achieve success. And when the door opens for me and I step through it, I’m often left with a feeling akin to what I imagine Aaron may have felt - that I didn’t earn my shot but rather stumbled upon it.

When we benefit from chance we can do one of two things: we can reject our fortune, favoring the myth that we can still become "self-made" or we can embrace it knowing that often what is perceived as luck is actually a product of many small actions that compound to burst open that door.

Yes, Aaron become the High Priest because of a mistake by his brother. But if he puts this fact aside and scrutinizes why he was God’s second choice suddenly his position becomes clear. Our tradition teaches that Aaron was kind, compassionate, and trustworthy. He was strong, faithful, and loving. He also loved Moses deeply and it was for these reasons that he was chosen to guide the religious life of the Israelites. As our Rabbis teach:

Said Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai: “That same heart that rejoiced in the greatness of his brother, let precious stones be set upon it, as it is said, “And Aaron shall bear the names of the Israelites on the breastplate (of the priesthood) upon his heart.” (28:29). (Tanchuma Shemini 3).

Aaron teaches us that when opportunities present themselves by chance we must embrace them. We shouldn’t let the guilt of good fortune blind us to our own virtues. We have worked too hard, earning our luck, to squander it.