Parashat Vaera

Lost in Translation?

Aaron bridged an existential gap that divided Moses and the Israelite slaves.

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Aaron's Role

God's solution of Aaron as translator contains the answer: Aaron's role as mediator was critical to the success of Moses' leadership. Aaron's translation not only smoothed away his brother's stutterings, but also bridged a vast existential difference that stood between Moses and the slaves whom he was charged with liberating.

Moses, raised as the son of Pharaoh's daughter, grew up in privilege. He had not been beaten for stumbling over his own exhaustion. His mind had not been numbed by the monotonous horror of slavery. Moses could certainly feel righteous rage for the bitterness of the Hebrews' servitude, but their burdens had never been his. Their pain was not his desperation. He had simply never been a slave.

Aaron, by contrast, was not raised in Pharaoh's palace: He was raised as a slave, among a family and community of slaves.

Moses' reliance upon Aaron's translation served as a constant reminder that to advocate effectively for his nation, Moses needed to reach beyond his own personal experience. Aaron could speak directly from the experience of oppression, and his role as translator helped Moses traverse the large divide between himself and the former slaves.

Each time Moses sought use of his brother's lips, the great leader was compelled to confront the fact that while he could speak to God without barrier, advocating for Israel was a more complicated matter.

As American Jews we have been raised, like Moses, among privilege. While this gives us great power to advocate for those in need around the world, it also means that we have not personally shared their experiences. The partnership between Moses and Aaron helps us understand that in a situation of such disparity we cannot work alone, but must work together with the communities whom we seek to help.

We revere Moses as rabeinu, our greatest teacher: Among his enduring lessons are the insights of his obdurate tongue. Just as Moses needed Aaron's constant mediation to lead and liberate a nation whose hardships he had never shared, we must be aware, when we commit ourselves to global justice work, that the communities we serve have faced challenges and privations that we have not borne.

Such awareness is, of course, not meant to impose artificial barriers. Rather, it is meant to cultivate respect and humility as we approach our work, to require from us the open-mindedness to listen for local wisdom and the discipline to concede that we do not hold a monopoly on solutions. For AJWS this means that grassroots organizations are best positioned to tackle the injustices and challenges of their own communities. They are, in effect, our "translators"--adapting for their communities' particular contours our common aspirations for a just world.

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Rachel Farbiarz

Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law. Rachel worked as a clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which she practiced law focusing on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.