Various fields of study have long deliberated about the relevance of genetics and heredity in predicting myriad aspects of peoples’ lives, from medical and mental health to career choices. Science has come a long way in identifying specific genetic markers for certain diseases and health conditions, and even then, heredity does not always mean a 100% accurately predictable diagnosis. Sometimes, a strongly heritable condition can be prevented or mitigated by changes in lifestyle, such as diet and exercise. In psychology, there is some evidence to suggest that individuals are slightly more vulnerable to mental health problems if their parents have struggled with mental health, and there are various behavioral, lifestyle, personality, spiritual/religious, and other contextual variables that can change the course for many people. Socially and professionally, many people grapple with the impact of their parents’ relationships and career paths when setting out to make these choices for themselves, and they don’t always follow in their parents’ footsteps.
There is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it series of events in this weeks’ Parsha that are rarely the topic of much discussion, but which shed light on this timeless psychosocial debate. I am grateful to Lara Pieri and Rachi Goldman for sharing with me a shiur by the Rosh Midrasha of Midreshet Harova, Rav David Milston, whose ideas resonated deeply with me. Shortly before Aharon’s death in Parshas Chukas, Hashem commands Moshe to take Aharon’s priestly clothing and dress Aharon’s son Elazar in the garb of the Kohen Gadol in front of Aharon, so that Aharon can witness the passing on of his prestigious position to his son before his death (20:26). In this week’s Parsha, after the daughters of Tzelafchad approach Moshe to ask about inheriting their father’s land, it struck Moshe to ask God to secure an inheritance for his own sons. When Hashem reminds Moshe that he won’t be entering the Land of Israel and will die like Aharon, Moshe asks Him to appoint a new leader for the people. Rashi (27:16-17) explains Moshe’s request, ‘yifkod Hashem,’ ‘may Hashem appoint [a man to lead the people],’ as a request that his own son be appointed leader in his stead.
Considering that Moshe saw Aharon pass on the Kehunah to his own children, and, as Rashi notes, on the heels of the request of the daughters of Tzelafchad, Moshe wanted his own children to follow his ways as well. We don’t frequently consider Moshe’s understandable distress in this situation. Having seen Aharon’s sons and all future generations secure in their roles as Kohanim, and after providing God’s stamp of approval to the daughters of Tzelafchad that they should inherit their father’s land, it makes perfect sense for Moshe to want his own children to succeed him in his role as leader. This was Moshe’s life’s work, something to which he was deeply connected; of course, he wanted his own children to follow in his footsteps! And yet, as Rashi describes, Hashem says, sorry Moshe, but that’s not happening; go and appoint Yehoshua instead. Why weren’t either of Moshe’s sons, Gershom and Eliezer, deserving of taking over?
R’ Milston quotes Rabbi Sacks, who provides five possible explanations. One of the reasons he suggests is that not all leadership qualities can be inherited. Rabbi Sacks also offers the explanation that Gershom and Eliezer had other influences in their lives aside from Moshe, such as their grandfather Yisro, who was a truth-seeker and idol worshipper before joining the Jewish people. Furthermore, they had the power of free will to choose their own destinies. In fact, in Sefer Shoftim we learn about Pesel Michah, an idol erected by a Jew named Michah who appointed Moshe’s grandson, Gershom’s son, to be the priest of his idol. R’ Milston notes that just because someone is the child or grandchild of a great person does not guarantee that person will also be great, without any effort on their part. Even strong genetics are just raw material. While one’s parentage and genetic makeup can create a potential for certain traits, such as charisma, oratory skills, organization, empathy, or compassion, it is the person’s own efforts and merits and personality that shape their actualized qualities and choices. Leadership in Judaism is not about where a person comes from, but about whom they choose to become.
Interestingly, if one looks at the different leadership roles in Jewish History, this phenomenon is evident. The Kehuna is the only job that is passed down in families; the role of the Shofet (judge) and the Navi (prophet) are all elected through Divine ordination, and the specific characteristics for the job are innate to the person himself, not to his parentage. In fact, this may be part of the reason why God frowned upon the idea of us having a king, “k’chol hagoyim,” like all the other nations. Monarchy is arbitrarily passed down from parent to child, irrespective of the particular leadership skills of one’s offspring – or their desire to rule. As is evidenced in the books of Shmuel and Melachim, this actually led to a lot of controversy, anarchy, and upheaval for Klal Yisrael from the time the first king, Shaul, was anointed.
It can sometimes be difficult to allow an apple to fall far from its tree. Despite our best efforts to be open minded and accepting, we, whether as parents, children, or bystanders, tend to judge people (ourselves included) in relation to parents and family. We wring our hands (or turn up our noses) over the religious struggles of the Rabbi’s child, and chuckle ironically when the children of the doctor or lawyer decide to become teachers (or, God forbid, Rabbis). While everyone is influenced by what they are exposed to as children, everyone also has unique characteristics, and above all, free will to choose for him or herself.
Perhaps the succession stories of Moshe and Aharon are juxtaposed with the plight of Bnos Tzelafchad for this precise reason. The Mefarshim propose that Tzelafchad died (leaving his daughters fatherless and in need of inherited land) because he was likely the Mekoshesh Eitzim, the Jew who went out to gather trees on Shabbos and was killed for his sin. Despite this, his daughters sought Moshe’s advice and wisdom and meant to adhere to it, making a different choice than their father.
Who we are and what we choose to do, the paths we follow religiously, socially, or professionally, depends only partially on where and who we come from, for better or for worse. Similarly, while we can do everything in our power to influence our children to follow in our ways and adhere to our values, it is far more important to lay the groundwork and plant the seeds that will enable them to choose those values for themselves. But above all, we must accept that everyone is an individual with the power to choose, and with this in mind, perhaps we can leave more space for all of us to grow into who we are meant to become.