Tetzaveh – One for the Books: The Week's End, February 23, 2024
Feb 22nd 2024

A large section of this week’s parashah devotes itself to the role and investiture of Aaron and his sons as the Kohanim. In intricate detail, the Torah describes the sartorial traits of every one of the priestly vestments. Although Moses oversees this inauguration process, his name is conspicuously absent. Parashat Tetzaveh is the only one in the last four books of the Torah in which Moses is neither named nor is speaking. One explanation for his absence has its source in the Jewish calendar. The 7th of Adar, the traditional date of Moses’ birth and death, always falls during the week in which Tetzaveh is read. His burial place also remains unknown. Consequently, commentators view Moses’ absence from the Torah reading in the same way as his virtual absence from the Passover Haggadah. It is to prevent any form of deification or cultlike worship of Moses. In Israel, the Seventh of Adar is designated as a day in remembrance of those soldiers who have fallen in war, but whose bodies have not been found or identified, in reference to the Biblical verse noting that no one knows the exact burial place of Moses "even to this day"(Deuteronomy 34:6).On Mount Herzl, there is a wall with the names of 588 fallen soldiers who died in Israel with unknown grave sites.

Another explanation stems from next week’s Torah portion Ki Tissa when God threatens to destroy the Israelites due to their construction and worship of the golden calf. Moses pleads on Israel’s behalf: “Now if You would but forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the book which You have written” (Exodus 32:32).Just as we beg God each year to pardon our iniquities and to inscribe us in the book of life, in the opposite fashion Moses essentially asks to die if God does not pardon Israel. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, an Iraqi born Talmudic scholar and the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1973-1983, offers an interesting observation. The word סִפְרְךָ sifr’khah (“Your book”), can be broken down to two words –סֵפֶר כ sefer khaf – which means the twentieth book. Tetzaveh is the twentieth portion of the Torah. Thus, Moses was removed from the twentieth book. But why this book? Why did Moses allude to having his name omitted in the book in which he charges Aaron with the honour and glory afforded the High Priest?

In actuality, Moses was supposed to have been the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. When God initially called upon him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses offered up various excuses and eventually asked God to send someone else, namely Aaron. This prompted God’s anger and subsequent transfer of the priesthood to Aaron and his descendants. Some commentators therefore explain Moses’ absence from Parashat Tetzaveh as him generously stepping aside to let the spotlight fall on Aaron and his priestly functions. Moses could have easily harped on the fact that he lost the priesthood. He could have built himself up as the one who was responsible for propelling and engineering Aaron’s success, but in his great humility, he did the exact opposite.

In our lives, we may sometimes hear things like “I got him / her that job,” “That was really my idea,” “He / She would be nothing without me.” “I made him / her what he / she is today.” One of the greatest attributes of true humility is to let others shine in their own achievement without announcing one’s role in their success. There are times when we need to erase ourselves from the book so to speak. The greatest educators, parents, and mentors know when to step aside and let their students, children, and colleagues bask in their success or accomplishment. In my book, that is the right thing to do. Shabbat Shalom.