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There is a lesson in this week’s Torah portion of Bamidbar, the beginning of the Torah’s fourth book, which might not sound so profound at first glance. Yet if the Torah decided to emphasize it, it is worth taking the time to analyze and appreciate its lesson.
In the beginning of the third perek of Bamidbar, the Torah states:
|1These are the descendants of Aharon and Moshe on the day that the Lord spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai.||אוְאֵ֛לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֥ת אַֽהֲרֹ֖ן וּמשֶׁ֑ה בְּי֗וֹם דִּבֶּ֧ר ד’ אֶת־משֶׁ֖ה בְּהַ֥ר סִינָֽי:|
|2These are the names of the sons of Aharon: Nadav the firstborn Avihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar.||בוְאֵ֛לֶּה שְׁמ֥וֹת בְּנֵי־אַֽהֲרֹ֖ן הַבְּכֹ֣ר | נָדָ֑ב וַֽאֲבִיה֕וּא אֶלְעָזָ֖ר וְאִֽיתָמָֽר:|
The Maharam from Rottenberg, a Rishon, asks: what difference does it make for the Torah to mention that Nadav was the firstborn? He did not get a double portion in the distribution of the land, since the kohanim did not receive any share in the land [of Israel when they conquered it]?
The Maharam explains that in fact there is a separation between the word “bechor” (which means first born) and the name “Nadav” [denoted by a line in our chumashim as seen above. We know this through a tradition dating back to when we received the Torah on Har Sinai]. This means the word “firstborn” is referring to Aharon, telling us that Aharon was older than Moshe. We shouldn’t wonder why the previous pasuk started off listing Aharon then Moshe, for Aharon was older than Moshe and when the lineage was being counted it was counted in order of age, not wisdom. This also happened earlier in the book of Shemos, in the Torah portion of Vaera; when stating the lineage [of Amram] the Torah writes: “And he bore Aharon and Moshe” (Shemos 6:20). After that in pasuk 26 it is written: “it is Aharon and Moshe” who were mentioned earlier by the lineage. Then after that, in pasuk 27 the Torah says: “They were the ones who spoke to Pharaoh… Moshe and Aharon,” meaning when it came to mentioning them talking to the king as well as bringing the Jews out of Egypt, Moshe comes before Aharon. (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)
Shavuos is upon us, the day we received the Torah on Har Sinai. Moshe Rabbeinu, who chaza”l considered the king of the Jewish people in the desert, brought down the Torah from Heaven to teach it to us. He was on the mountain top for forty days and forty nights without eating or drinking. He sacrificed his life for Torah and for that reason it is called ‘Toras Moshe,’ Moshe’s Torah. That being said, one would think Moshe, chosen by G-d to be the leader and king of the Jewish People, would have earned the right to be written first every time he is mentioned alongside anyone else; isn’t that just and proper respect of a king?
Furthermore, even if Hashem wanted to acknowledge and teach us that Aharon was born first, He need only tell us that a single time. The Torah even says that Moshe was 80 and Aharon was 83 (in that order) when first confronting Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go (Shemos 7:7). Why then must Hashem put Aharon first before Moshe when each time lineage is discussed?
However it would seem that Hashem is driving home an important lesson in respect and honor to our fellow man. Granted, respect and honor can be earned through diligence in Torah study and good deeds, and must be acknowledged by others, but there are also innate and natural times of respect that cannot be ignored, such as when the lineage is being counted and Aharon, the older brother, was mentioned first each time in the Torah because in respect to family lineage that respect and honor needs to be identified each time. Yet when it came to speaking to Pharaoh and leading the Jews out of Egypt, Moshe was always mentioned before Aharon because he earned that respect, and was therefore appointed to be the leader and king of the Jewish people.
Similarly, the Ramban in the Torah portion of Kedoshim clearly says by the verse: “You shall rise before a venerable person and you shall respect the elderly, and you shall fear your God. I am the Lord” (Vayikra 19:32), that one has a mitzvah to stand before the elderly even if he is a layman. Granted, for a sage, at whatever age, there is a mitzvah to stand up when they enter the room because they earned that status of honor and respect. But even a person who isn’t so learned, but simply has the experience of years, has a natural, innate honor that should be respected, and therefore there is a mitzvah to stand when an elderly person, be it even a simple layman, enters the room (as long as he is not wicked).
The lesson is clear. We have to show proper respect and honor when and where it is due. The trick, though, which is not so easy, is to acknowledge this fact so one can properly act on it when the situation arises.