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Drash on Parashat T’tzaveh 2024

Rabbi Martha Bergadine

United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong

This week’s parashah, Tetzaveh, is filled with details — how to light the menorah, the specifics of the priestly vestments including the breastplate with its stones naming the twelve tribes and the mysterious Urim and Thummim, the exact procedure for consecrating the priests including the necessary sacrifices, and instructions for preparing the altar for offering incense. There is so much detail it is easy to miss what — or who — is not there . . . Moses. Tetzaveh is the only Torah portion from the beginning of Exodus until the end of Deuteronomy in which Moses’ name is not mentioned and in which Moses does not speak.

While a casual reader may not notice this omission, our sages certainly did and they offered several possible explanations. Their thoughts often centered around the fact that the parashah describes the appointment and installation of Moses’ brother, Aaron, as the High Priest and they speculated on Moses’ feelings toward his brother’s elevation.

In Leviticus Rabbah, Rabbi Helbo imagined a sense of sibling rivalry on Moses’ part:

All the seven days of consecration Moses ministered to the office of High Priest, and he imagined it was his. One the seventh day He (God) said to him: “It belongs not to you but to your brother Aaron.

Thus the absence of Moses’ name is seen as a rebuke of his envy of Aaron’s position.

However, Midrash HaTorah took the opposite, and much more charitable, view that Moses humbly and graciously ceded the role of High Priest to Aaron:

Moses our teacher in his meekness strove in all these matters to enhance the honor and glory of Aaron and exerted himself as if he himself had initiated the idea to induct him in the priestly function. He carried out this delegation of authority not as one commanded to do so, out of necessity, but rather enthusiastically as a true friend who puts himself at the disposal of his Maker, even when is name is not mentioned.

Moses’ great humility was reflected by his absence in the text.

Other commentators posited a more straightforward explanation – that the omission of Moses’ name serves to mark the anniversary of his death. The Talmud explains:

Another (baraitha) taught: On the seventh of Adar Moses died, and on the seventh of Adar he was born.

Moses’ yahrzeit then, is 7 Adar with the reading of parashat Tetzaveh usually taking place during that week (however, it doesn’t this year, 5784, as this year is a leap year).

Interestingly, in usual, non-leap years the 7th of Adar comes in the week preceding Purim. The Book of Esther is also famously known for not mentioning a “main character” — God. While many commentators see God moving “behind the scenes” in the Purim story, it is clear that had Esther not bravely stood up to Haman, the Jews of Persia would have been wiped out. Esther recognized that she had the power to act and did so even at the risk of her life.

Perhaps we can take a similar message from Moses’ absence in Tetzaveh. Moses had served as the leader of the Israelites guiding them from Egypt and would continue to do so through 40 years in the desert. He is an actor in every other Torah portion from Exodus through the end of the Torah, but here it is Aaron and the priests who are explicitly mentioned while Moses is not. Tetzaveh describes a process whereby others will begin to take on power and authority and Moses’ omission highlight this.

Today we no longer have kings, prophets or priests, but we do have, each of us, a certain power in our own hands. We cannot be passive, waiting for God to split the sea, or for a Moses-like leader to guide us. Instead, we have the responsibility and power to act — to remedy what we see is wrong and to repair that which is broken. God’s providence endures, but it is up to us to make it real in the world.

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