Aunts and Nephews
"Amram took Jochebed his aunt as a wife, and she bore him Aaron and Moses."
This is the story recorded in this week's Torah portion, Vaeira (1). Amram, in other words, married his father's sister. Both Amram's father (Kehoth) and his wife (Jochebed) were daughters of Levi, the third son of the Jacob-Leah dynasty (2).
Now, as we know, the marriage of an aunt and a nephew would, in time, become prohibited for the Jewish people and would be defined in the Torah as an immoral and un-G-dly union (3). An uncle may marry his niece (3*), but an aunt cannot marry her nephew. So why would Amram and Jochebed, two of the great people of Israel at the time (4), enter into a relationship that would later become forbidden for all of their offspring?
True, during that time, prior to the giving of the Torah, this type of marriage was not forbidden. Still, Amram and Jochebed were fully aware that this union would one day become forbidden and that their grandparents observed the Commandments even before they were officially presented to the people of Israel (5). Why, then, would they subject themselves to a problematic relationship (6)?
The enigma deepens considering the fact that it was this marriage that gave rise to little Moses, the messenger who would transmit G-d's law to Israel, including the instruction against marrying one's aunt. Yet Moses himself is born precisely from such a relationship (7)! How do we understand the fact the giver of the Torah was the child of a marriage forbidden in the Torah?
Give and Take
To understand this, we must first attempt to comprehend why the Torah permits the marriage of an uncle with his niece while prohibiting the union of an aunt with her nephew?
One of the answers to this question has to do with some of the physical, psychological and mystical differences between the masculine and feminine genders.
Jewish mysticism teaches that a woman's uniqueness lies in her ability to accept and internalize, while a man's fulfillment lies in his ability to project and bestow (8).
This is expressed, of course, in the physical structures of their bodies and in the nature of their physical union, where the man protrudes and projects while the woman accepts and internalizes. But the biological differences reflect their psychological and spiritual structures as well.
One of the most fulfilling experiences for many a woman is the silent but powerful moment of welcoming and taking in another person's soul. Women, more than men, naturally crave and cherish the experience of a genuine relationship. The Talmud, written around 1,700 years ago, states (9) that women instinctively feel an inner void that compels them to seek a relationship that fills that emptiness. While men often deceive themselves that they are complete in and of themselves, many a woman needs no more than a moment's call to become fully emotionally present to embrace the loving or aching heart of another human being.
A man's primary satisfaction lies in his power to give, to bestow and to project, while a women experiences deep joy and serenity in her ability to be there and take it in. Man often feels the urge to change a situation and rectify a problem, while women see the experience of "receiving" as an end in and of itself.
This does not mean to say that a woman does not cherish the opportunity to influence, give and transform. Yet women accomplish these objectives by internalizing rather than by overwhelming; through silence more than through noise; by being rather than by projecting. The Kabbalah states that the souls of most men originate within G-d as a creator, while the souls of most women stem from G-d as an essential being (10). For man to feel fulfilled he must create, transform, rectify; for woman to be fulfilled she must be.
Respecting the Difference
The solution to this conflict of nature lies not in denying that there is a difference, but rather in each party knowing that there is a difference, and respecting the space and individual nature of the other person.
This is the deeper, mystical reason for the Torah's prohibition against the marriage of an aunt with her nephew. A marriage between an aunt and a nephew, which would by nature and instinct place the husband in the role of recipient and his wife in the position of the projector and giver (she she is the aunt and he is the nephew), may hinder the full expression of both the wife and her husband. A man must be allowed to project and give, while a woman must be allowed to "be there," to accept and internalize.
How to Become a Teacher
This is true about most marriages. Yet our teacher Moses needed to come from a very different type of relationship—a relationship in which the recipient (represented by the woman) will be the giver (the aunt), and the projector (represented by the man) will become the recipient (the nephew). Why? Because Moses, the "man of G-d,"(11), was chosen as the Divine messenger who would, for the first time in human history, share with the Jewish people and the world the Divine perspective on life and reality, the G-dly blueprint for life embodied by the Torah. Moses served as the ultimate teacher, mentor and leader, sharing the eternal truths of morality and G-dliness with an otherwise directionless universe, giving human history the dignity of having a moral and Divine purpose.
What is the primary quality that made Moses who he was? His complete humility and absence of ego in the presence of truth.
The main characteristic required to become a conduit for G-d’s word is surrendering the ego. In Moses' transmission of Torah from G-d to the Jewish people, a fundamental change was required: The "woman" needed to assume the role of leadership and seniority over the "man." The "woman" needed to be the aunt, and the "man" the nephew. The prerequisite for becoming a conduit for Torah and Divine wisdom lies not in one's ability to project and give, but rather in one's power to accept, receive and internalize.
This is true for every teacher of Divine truth. A rabbi who sees his primary role as a teacher rather than a student—a student of truth and a recipient of ideas and feelings that transcend him—is not qualified as a rabbi. If I wish to be a teacher of Torah, I must acknowledge that I do not own this wisdom. I am merely a humble recipient who craves to learn from everybody and from everything the truths of life, of G-d, of justice.
Moses, the ultimate teacher and leader of all time, needed to be born from a marriage in which the recipient reigned supreme (12).
1) Exodus 16:20. 2) Rashi ibid. 3) Leviticus 18:12-14. 3*) Such was the case, for example, with Mordechai and Esther. Esther was Mordechai's niece. 4) The Talmud states (Soteh 12a) that Amram was the Gadol Hador, the spiritual leader of the generation. 5) Talmud Yuma 28b; Kedushin 82a. 6) A similar question is asked concerning Jacob who married two sisters, a union that would become forbidden in the Torah, despite the fact that it is clear from the Bible that our Patriarchs observed the Mitzvos even before they were officially given to the Jewish people. Much ink has been poured to find a resolution to this enigma. (See Likkutei Sichos vol. 5 pp. 141-149 and many references noted there.) 7) The question is increased many fold considering the fact that according to the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer in Talmud Sanhedrin p. 58a this marriage may have been forbidden even before the Torah was given to gentiles as well (Cf. Likkutei Sichos vol. 5 p. 43 and references noted there). 8) This is a central doctrine in the literature of Kabbalistic and Chassidic thought. The masculine is defined as the "Mahpiah," while the feminine as the "Mekabal." 9) Kedushin 41a. 10) In the terminology of Kabbalah: Masculine souls originate in Za, while feminine souls originate in Malchus (see Maamar Lecah Dodi 5714 and references noted there). 11) Psalms 90:1.
12) This essay is based on Maor V'shemesh Parshas Veira. The author, Rabbi Klonemus Kalman Halevi Epstein, was born circa 1751. He was one of the great disciples of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk, a pupil of the Maggid of Mezrich, student of the Baal Shem Tov. He also studied at the feet of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Remenov and the Seer of Lublin. [There is a Chassidic tradition in the name of the Seer of Lublin that his soul was the soul of the High Priest, Rabbi Eliezer Ben Chartum.] Rabbi Klonemus Kalman passed away at the age of 72, in 1823. In his Chassidic work on the Torah, Maor V'shemesh, he transcribed many ideas that he heard from his saintly teachers as well as ideas he developed on his own. The idea discussed in this essay, he quotes in the name "of a great man, one of the Tzaddikim of our time" (Cf. Likkutei Sichos vol. 4 p. 1090 discussing a similar expression in Maor V'shemesh Remzei Bein Hametzarim).
My gratitude to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance, and to Chaim schild, a chemist from Monsey, NY, for pointing me to this idea of the Maor V'shemesh.