A Healthy Distance
For the first and only time since his introduction in the beginning of Parshat Shmot, Moshe’s name is omitted from an entire parsha.
Why is Moshe’s name omitted from Parshat Tetzave?
The question is compounded by the fact that the omission seems clearly deliberate. Over and over again, the Torah creates settings in the parsha where Moshe’s name, by all rights, should appear – only to exclude it from the text on each occasion.
For example, the first sentence of the parsha does not begin with the usual formula, “And the Lord said to Moshe saying, speak unto the children of Israel and say…”
In place of this familiar opening we find the abrupt directive, “And you [Moshe] shall command the children of Israel…”
This phenomenon repeats itself throughout the parsha.
A. A fascinating Midrashic tradition connects the omission of Moshe’s name in Parshat Tetzave to a dramatic encounter between this great leader and his Creator, chronicled in the next parsha, Ki Tissa.
In the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, Moshe turns to the Israelites and proclaims, “You have committed a grievous sin, and now I will ascend to the Lord; perhaps I can atone for your sin.”
Moshe then ascends Mount Sinai where he confronts God and declares: “I beseech you! This people have committed a grievous sin and have created for themselves a god of gold. And now, if you will forgive their sin – and if not, erase me from Your book which You have written!”
God responds, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I shall erase from My book…”
During the critical, turbulent moments following the sin of the golden calf, Moshe apparently makes a fundamental error in his own assessment of his leadership role – an error which must be emphatically and immediately corrected by God.
Moshe has to be reminded that he cannot serve as the intermediary between God and His people. Once again, the Torah conveys the fundamental truth that is transmitted over and over again during the unfolding events at Sinai: the hallmark of divine worship is direct, personal encounter between man and God.
Parshat Tetzave is dedicated exclusively to the topic of the kehuna (priesthood). Within this parsha’s boundaries the Torah introduces the concept of the kehuna, outlines the detailed instructions for the fashioning of the priestly garments and discusses plans for the eventual investiture of Aharon and his descendants into their eternal roles as Kohanim.
The very concept of the priesthood carries the potential danger that the Kohen will be perceived, erroneously, as an intermediary between the people and their God rather than as the nation’s representative within the Temple. To clarify that no leader should ever perceive himself or be perceived as an essential go-between between the people and their Creator, Moshe’s name is omitted specifically from Parshat Tetzave. There could be no more appropriate response for the momentary, yet critical, lapse on Moshe’s part recorded in Parshat Ki Tissa – the instance, when, due to the unimaginable pressures of the moment, Moshe attempts to take upon himself the atonement of others.
B. An alternative explanation for Moshe’s “absence” from Parshat Tetzave is offered by some scholars, based upon a Talmudic tradition rooted at the burning bush, the scene of Moshe’s call to leadership.
There, God repeatedly overrules Moshe’s objections concerning his election to leadership, until, finally, the Torah states: “And the anger of God was kindled against Moshe and He said: ‘Is there not Aharon your brother, the Levi? I know that he will gladly speak…. He shall speak for you to the people…”
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, noting God’s anger and the sudden introduction of Aharon, explains that at this point Moshe loses an honored opportunity. Moshe was originally destined to be not only Moshe Rabbeinu, the lawgiver, teacher and political leader of the Israelites, he was to be the Kohen Gadol, as well. Due to Moshe’s continued reluctance at the burning bush, however, God relieves him of that honor and bestows it upon his brother, Aharon.
To mark this lost opportunity, Moshe’s name is omitted from Parshat Tetzave, the parsha that introduces the concept of the kehuna (priesthood).
C. As intriguing as the Midrashic explanations for Moshe’s “absence” in Parshat Tetzave may be, a much simpler, yet equally powerful, pshat explanation can be offered.
Parshat Tetzave is “Aharon’s parsha,” the section of biblical text which introduces the glorious role that Aharon and his descendants will assume across the ages. In recognition of the fact that this is his brother’s “moment,” Moshe is forced to take a step back out of the limelight. Moshe is certainly present, playing an essential role in the proceedings. Aharon, however, is center stage.
Even Moshe, the greatest leader our people has known, must at times step aside, to allow others to shine.
Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.