Moses’ Absence

Parashat Tetzaveh foreshadows the connection the Children of Israel will have with God after the death of Moses.

Commentary on Parashat Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20 - 30:10

Hashem [God] continues His instructions for the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), which will bring the people of Israel into intimate, uninterrupted conjunction with Him.

It is a well-known observation that, from the beginning of Exodus until the beginning of Deuteronomy, there is not a Parashah in which Moses is not mentioned, except for Parashat Tetzaveh, which is always read close to the seventh day of Adar, the anniversary of Moses’s death.

Avoiding His Name

The Torah seems to go out of its way in order to avoid calling Moses by name. Instead, three times he is addressed with the word ve’atah–“and you”:

ve’atah te’tzaveh–And you shall command the Children of Israel that they take for you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always. In the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain which is before the [Ark of] the Testimony, shall Aaron and his sons arrange it from evening to morning before Hashem, an eternal statute for their generations on behalf of the Children of Israel (Exodus 27:20-21).

ve’atah hakrev–And you shall bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him from among the Children of Israel, that he may minister to Me: Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, Elazar and Itamar, the sons of Aaron. And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother for glory and splendor (28:1-2).

ve’atah te’daber–And you shall speak to all the wise of heart, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they will make Aaron’s garments to sanctify him that he may minister to Me (verse 3).

The repetition of ve’atah is puzzling: Why eschew Moses’s name, and why now? Also, what is the connection to the 7th of Adar?

Purpose of the Mishkan

It will be helpful for us to examine the purpose of the Mishkan. While it was always Hashem’s intention to command the building of this sanctuary in order to bring His Presence into the midst of the people, the actual command was issued after the sin of the golden calf (see Rashi on 31:18). Thereby, the Mishkan became atonement for that sin.

Hashem informs Moses about the sin, proclaiming:

“Go, descend, because your people that you brought up from the land of Egypt have [become] corrupted (32:7).

The Talmud (Tractate Berachot 32a) comments:

Said R. Elazar: “Descend from your greatness: I granted you greatness only for the sake of Israel. Now that Israel sinned, why do I need you?”

Moses’s leadership is inextricably bound up with the people of Israel. Accordingly, the Children of Israel feel lost without Moses. The spark that initially ignited the sin was the people’s panic that Moses might be dead:

And the people saw that Moses delayed in descending from the mountain, and the people assembled against Aaron and they said to him, “Arise, make for us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what became of him” (32:1).

When Hashem declares that He will destroy the people and rebuild the nation from Moses, the leader prays:

“And now, if You will but forgive their sin–but if not, erase me, please, from Your book that You have written” (32:32).

Moses accepts his responsibility fully.

Dependent on Moses

However, the people have shown that they are overly, even unhealthily dependent upon Moses and his role in connecting them to Hashem. In an unhealthy leader-follower relationship, which is analogous to an unhealthy parent-child relationship, the parent-figure does not allow the child-figure to develop independently, so the “child” cannot cope with separation.

Therefore, as explained by R. Yehudah Leon Ashkenazi Manitou, Moses practices self-abnegation to the extent that when listening to the Torah from him, the Children of Israel know that, even while they are receiving “the Torah of Moses” (Malachi 3:22), they are hearing the “Torah of Hashem” (Psalms 19:8). This requires a delicate balance. By the 7th of Adar, the day he departs this world, Moses has achieved the title, the “man of God” (Deuteronomy 33:1; also, Joshua 14:6, Psalms 90:1)–the prophet who sublimates his identity to teach the word of Hashem.

Thus, in Parashat Tetzaveh, which focuses on the operation of the Mishkan that will unite the people with Hashem, and which is read close to the 7th of Adar, Moses’s name is submerged. In the 40 years since the sin of the golden calf, Moses Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) will have succeeded in imparting to the people of Israel the great lesson–how to survive his death. Then, the Children of Israel will be sufficiently adult that they will be able to accept the separation, and mourn, and move on.

Parashat Tetzaveh, where “Moses” becomes ve’atah, foreshadows the time when the quintessential leader named Moses will no longer be, but his essence will always persist.

Moses serves as a role model for all teachers of Torah. In the Talmud, R. Zeira was known as “the little man with the singed thighs,” ever since he was burned by an oven. We are told (Tractate Sanhedrin 37a) that R. Zeira would pray for the salvation of some ruffians who lived in his neighborhood. He prayed for them constantly, even though the other Sages had long given up on them.

After R. Zeira died, the ruffians said: “Until now, the little man with the singed thighs would ask Hashem to have mercy on us. Now, who will pray on our behalf?” So, they made up their own minds and repented. R. Zeira’s death provided them with their greatest lesson, and they finally learned to take responsibility for themselves.

When we listen to our Torah teachers, we hear beyond their own voices–we hear the voice of Hashem.

Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.

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