All in a Name
As we know from our many Torah explorations, nothing is written in Torah, but that God intends it. Each paragraph. Each pasuk. Each letter. What is written is instructive. And what is excluded is also telling. It is in this context that we question the significance and meaning of the curious “omission” in parashat Tetzaveh.
From the moment of his birth through the conclusion of Devarim, Moshe is a commanding presence in the Torah. The narrative of the Jewish people’s story is filled with great personages and moments of incredible power but even so Moshe is singular; in many ways the “star”, of our epic narrative. And yet, it is only in this one parasha of all the parashiot of Torah from the time of his birth, that Moshe’s name does not appear.
Tetzaveh opens, v’atah tetzaveh, “and you shall command.” It is clear that the “you” referred to is Moshe but as anyone who has ever been pointed at by a boss, a teacher, or a coach and told, “You, do this…” or “You, do that…” knows, “you” is not a name.
There are those who see a benign, even uplifting, lesson in the absence of Moshe’s name. They point out that parashat Tetzaveh almost always falls in the week of the 7th of Adar, Moshe’s yahrzeit (and birth). That his name is missing, they suggest, speaks to his absence and how much we miss him.
Others see more pointed lessons.
Rav Ovadya Yosef zt’l made a wry observation that when Moshe stands before God and pleads on behalf of the people, that if God will not forgive the nation after the Golden Calf, then He should, “wipe me out of the book (sifrecha) that You wrote.” (Shemot 32:32) While the people were ultimately forgiven, Moshe’s words were not erased or forgotten. He was erased from Tetzaveh. Why? As Rav Ovadya explained, sifrecha can be read not only as “the book you wrote” but also “book 20.” That is, Moshe pleads to be erased from the 20th book – parashat Tetzaveh!
Whether uplifting or punitive, is there a lesson here for us?
We are used to people making their “presence” known with strong, tough, unrelenting pronouncements. Indeed, our current political moment is defined by rash, absolutist language. But unlike the callow, ego-driven and power-hungry politicians and leaders who clamor for headlines and extended “fifteen-minutes” of fame, Moshe wasn’t just empty talk. He meant it when he said that wanted no part of Torah if God would not forgive His People. As we know, God does eventually forgive the people but He does not forget, and He particularly does not forget the words of a tzadik. A tzadik’s pronouncement is never brushed aside, never discounted.
When a tzadik speaks, he speaks truth. His words matter.
Moshe did not speak from one side of his mouth for one audience, anticipating speaking from the other for another audience. He said what he meant. And what he said had consequences.
While Moshe’s name is absent from the parasha, Moshe himself is very much “present” in the parasha – “you” and “you” and “you” are repeated over and over. No mention of his name but plenty of awareness of his presence.
Would it have been too much for God to have forgiven Moshe his strong language just as he forgave the people for their horrific lapse in judgement?
Or, more deeply, is this really a question for which forgiveness would even be appropriate? Is the lesson in Moshe’s name not appearing in the parasha teaching us something more than the consequences for crying out to God to forgive the people in the most forceful way he could imagine?
Put another way, is the absence of Moshe’s name in Tetzaveh simply a, “you asked for it…” response from God? That doesn’t seem consistent with God we have come to know through the Torah narrative. Moshe was unwilling to give up on the people even after the sin of making the egel. He was unwilling to accept God’s arguments that He had no need for a nation willing to stoop so low after all that they have seen and experienced! That Moshe would be punished for being such a strong defender of klal Israel seems… well, it seems somehow petty, and we know that God is anything but petty.
So, let’s dig deeper. Tetzaveh begins, “V’atah tetzaveh – And you shall command…” “You.” This “you” resounds louder than any name. It is an eternal statement that you and only you are capable of teaching b’nai Yisrael what they need to know. The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that, “And you” proclaims Moshe’s existence more powerfully than his name ever could. It is true Moshe’s name does not appear in Tetzaveh. But, as we have noted, his presence looms large.
Perhaps more to the point, Moshe’s name is, in truth, no name at all. When Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, “named” him she called him Moshe, “For I drew him (meshitihu) from the water.” That’s not a name! That’s a descriptive act! In truth, Moshe is never identified by a true name, only by his extraordinary actions, climaxed by his willingness to sacrifice all for his people.
His “name” is proclaimed by its absence! What a contrast to the gathering of our modern day, so-called “leaders” who clamor and shout and gesticulate and berate and insult! For them, their names are ways to say “me, me, me!”
For Moshe, his “name” was a way to say, “you.”
What is a name, really? What purpose does it serve? It is, ultimately, a marker by which others identify you, refer to you, communicate with you. It is, in short, a social tool. Adam in the garden, needed no name.
Names are a tool of others. At best, they relate minimally to the essence of one’s being. So, to think that Moshe’s name is not mentioned because he said, “Erase me” or because he spoke arrogantly to God? No, the Chassidic masters say. Excluding Moshe’s name was not a punishment.
It was his finest hour!
Others might challenge that statement. Moshe’s “finest hour” was surely the Exodus, or Yam Suf, or Sinai. Magnificent, transcendent moments to be sure. But they could not hold a candle to when he pled for his people, refusing to cede an inch to God’s anger.
Tetzaveh then is not punishment; it is laudatory. It is testament to an unblemished, untarnished leader, willing to sacrifice everything for his people. It is testament to the man who would concede “me” for “you!”
Could any of us imagine a contemporary leader understanding and incorporating even a fraction of this lesson?
Not speaking his “name” is the greatest tribute we can pay Moshe each year on his yahrzeit. No fanfare. No press conferences. No ALL CAPITAL tweets. No headlines. Not even his name.
This lesson speaks to Moshe Rabeinu, but it holds for you and me too. For example, when I say, “I love you” to my beloved I am not speaking to your name, your nose, your freckles, or the delicious dinner you just served, I am speaking to you, to your essence. V’atah tetzaveh. And “you” shall tell – not the leader, intellect, sage but you, you who have sacrificed, you who have transcended, you – you who were willing to erase yourself from Torah for the sake of the people, this is the true “you”, the true atah. Beyond name or title.
For Moshe, “you” spoke to his essence as the most modest man on earth. Remember, it was Moshe who pleaded not to be sent to Pharaoh – “Who am I that he should listen to me?” – Moshe who demurred every time he was called to lead. He was not a man who demands allegiance, who demeans friends and foe alike; he was a man who stood before God and said, “If you destroy them, wipe my name from your Book.”
Would that we could “name” such a leader to lead us today!