At the end of our parasha, ה׳ tells Moshe to come up to הר סיני with the leaders of בני ישראל. There is a discussion in the gemara whether this takes place before or after the giving of the עשרת הדברות, but that is not germane to our discussion:
Who’s missing here? אהרון‘s older children come up, presumably since they represent the future leadership, but what about משה’s sons?
We meet both Moshe’s sons when Yitro brings Moshe’s family to him in the desert:
So what happened to Moshe’s children? They are not mentioned again in all of the Torah. In fact, they are mentioned in all of תנ״ך only once:
The Ramban points out that they are in fact listed in the Torah, though not by name:
And in other places, they are conspicuous by their absence, and the commentaries notice this:
Moshe had a reasonable expectation that his children would succeed him:
And the midrash that is the basis for Rashi’s comment is even more harsh in its judgment of Moshe’s children:
The issue is not just that Joshua was more involved in Torah and serving Moshe, it was that Moshe’s children were not involved in עסקים בתורה at all. Where does that come from? It’s from another conspicuous absence:
It’s a nice drash to say that Aharon’s children were like Moshe’s own, since he taught them Torah. But the absence of Gershom and Elazar stands out; they clearly were not learning with their father. So where were they? As we saw above, they were in the southern camp, with their cousins, משפחת היצהרי. And who was that?
A lot has been written in recent years about this phenomenon, the failure of Moshe’s progeny to live up to his level, relating it to Moshe’s own relationship with his sons. There was a foofaraw about 4 years ago then the Jewish Light published a dvar Torah arguing exactly that, then a response that such a conclusion is not based on any mesorah and is לשון הרע against משה רבינו. The question of Moshe’s responsibilities to his family as opposed to his responsibilities to the community is an interesting one, and has important implications to our own responsibilities. Nonetheless, I don’t like the idea of maligning Moshe, and I think that blaming a child’s behavior after 40 years on an absent parent minimizes the responsibility that an adult has over his own behavior.
I want to take a different tack. Fast forward about 20 years, to the end of ספר שופטים:
The story of פסל מיכה is one of the less palatable ones in תנ״ך; we usually skip it in grade school. Shortly after Joshua’s death, בני ישראל slide into idolatry and one man, מיכה, makes an idol that he dedicates to the worship of ה׳ (definitely unclear on the concept) and opens his own replacement משכן and hires an itinerant Levi to be his personal כהן גדול. Later, בני דן take the idol along with the Levi and move to their new territory in the north:
The gemara astonishingly identifies this Levi, יהונתן בן גרשם, as the grandson of Moshe himself:
And blames his "falling off the derech on his great-grandfather, Yitro:
What did Yitro do wrong? There’s another, even more astonishing, midrash in the Mechilta:
How could Moshe have agreed to let his son be dedicated to עבודה זרה? The answer, I think, lies in the continuation of the original gemara I cited:
And this idea is brought down להלכה:
So where did Gershom go wrong, that his son ended up a priest of an idol? I think he realized that he was not at the level of his father, that he could not be a Joshua and spend all day in Yeshiva, so he would have to involve himself in secular pursuits. As the gemara says:
Only a rare few can be a שמעון בן יוחי or a משה רבינו or a יהושע and just learn and rely on ה׳'s providence. The rest of us have more השתדלות to do, still have to work to support ourselves, even if that עבודה is זרה לו. But as the midrash says, Moshe’s children misinterpreted it. They are described as לא עסקו בתורה, which is the wrong attitude:
Having not put Torah as the עיקר, the slide to the corruption of his son יהונתן is inevitable. And I think that is the lesson for us, to make (אבות א:טו) תורתך קבע, and our other work, however time-consuming, only עראי in our minds.
And I think this is the message of פרשת משפטים: the laws listed here are not for the ones sitting in yeshiva all day, but for those of us working, dealing with our fields and cows and pits. This is the parasha where בני ישראל are quoted as saying (שמות כד: ז) נעשה ונשמע, we will do and we will learn. Even according to those who would put that statement chronologically before מתן תורה, I think it is placed here to say that this sentiment applies to all the laws of משפטים, and even those doing the נעשה have to commit to the נשמע as well.