The Missing Moses

June 24, 2009

6 min read


Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10 )

Now, if you would, please forgive their sin. If not, You can blot me out from the book that you have written. (Exodus 32:32)

Moses' name is not mentioned explicitly in this Parsha. He is referred to only with the pronoun "you." After the sin of the Golden Calf, when the Jewish people was in danger of being destroyed, Moses begged God to forgive the people's sins and if not, to blot his name out of the Torah. Even though God forgave them, still Moses' words were fulfilled and his name was erased from one portion in the Torah.

It is difficult to understand why Moses should have been punished for exhibiting self-sacrifice for the Jewish people. In addition, why was Parshat Tetzaveh specifically chosen as the place to delete his name?

When God first approached Moses at the Burning Bush, Moses questioned his worthiness to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. Even after God had answered all his doubts, Moses still replied, "Send this mission with the one you usually send" (Exodus 4:13). Here Moses revealed the real reason behind his unwillingness to accept this mission. He was afraid of slighting his older brother Aaron, who had suffered together with the Jewish people and had been, until then, God's emissary to them. Moses was afraid that Aaron would be hurt if his younger brother was chosen over him.

God responded in anger. According to Rabbi Yosi (Talmud, Zevachim 102a), Moses was actually punished for his reticence. He had been destined to be the progenitor of the line of Kohanim, and Aaron was to be an ordinary Levi. Now this designation was reversed.

On the surface, it seems incongruous that Moses should have been punished so severely for refusing the mission out of sensitivity to his brother's feelings. To appreciate the subtle deficiency that God found in Moses, we must first discuss two divergent approaches to service of God.

The first approach is reflected in the words of the Sages: "Our will is to do your will." This implies that service to God starts with our subjective will. We wish to do that which is good for us, and we conclude that fulfilling the will of God is what is best for us in this world and the next. The second approach is reflected in the words of the Sages (Avos 2:4): "Make His will as your own." In this approach, God's will is the starting point and one subjugates his own personal desire to God's will, disregarding any subjective preferences.

The latter approach is reserved for special individuals - lovers of God (see Nachmanides to Exodus 20:6) Ahava (love) is serving God with no thought of personal reward; Yirah (fear) is with one's own personal reward in mind.

We can better understand the following exchange between Moses and God. After the first two of the Ten Commandments were given, the people approached Moses and said they were afraid that if they continued to hear God speak directly, their souls would leave their bodies forever. They begged Moses to be an intermediary between themselves and God.

Moses was devastated that the people did not want to approach God directly out of love and would rather hear the Torah indirectly. But God responded to Moses' disappointment that the people had spoken well: this great fear of His and desire to observe all His Mitzvot should remain with them and their children forever.

Moses was agitated that the people considered their own welfare and were not selflessly dedicated to relating to God directly, even at the possible cost of their lives. That is the level of selfless love. Their fear of dying while listening to God's words reflected that lack of complete selflessness. God responded, "it should only be" that they remain on the level of Fear of God, where service to God is measured by the subjective understanding that doing God's will is the best course for a person. This level is not yet that of selfless love, but it is nevertheless an admirable one for the masses.

Reb Zusya was once asked if he would be happy to change places with Abraham. He replied: "What would God gain - there would be still one Abraham and one Reb Zusya." That is the attitude of love of God in which one's personal reward is absolutely irrelevant.

The Sages tell us that one who suspects another wrongly is smitten in his own body (Talmud - Shabbos 97a). If there are not grounds to suspect another, then the suspicion reflects on the one who is suspicious. He knows that if he were in a similar position himself, he probably would have acted as he suspects his friend of acting. Therefore, his suspicion is based on a personal blemish, and this is the personal impairment which the Sages refer to as being smitten bodily.

Moses' suspicion that Aaron would feel slighted was groundless. God told Moses that Aaron would have nothing but joy in his heart upon hearing that Moses had been chosen. Therefore the basis for Moses' suspicion must have been within himself. And it was this slight blemish that God responded to by punishing Moses.

A Kohen becomes God's agent and representative, and therefore must be a selfless servant, totally negating his own self. If Moses could not free himself of the self-concern he projected onto Aaron, he was found unfit to be the Kohen. Aaron's selflessness was beyond question - it made no difference to him who the redeemer was, as long as God's mission was fulfilled - and he was therefore found fit to be the Kohen Gadol.

Moses rectified this slight blemish of self-interest when he asked that his named be erased from the Torah if God did not forgive the Jewish people. To publicize Moses' rectification of his original blemish, his name was deleted from Tetzaveh, in which the installation of Kohanim is discussed. Moses might have been jealous of Aaron's status as Kohen Gadol. To show that he was not, the Torah alludes to his earlier willingness to have his name removed entirely from the Torah. The Torah therefore deletes his name and refers to him as "you." It made no difference to Moses who was the Kohen Gadol - as long as there was a Kohen Gadol to fulfill God's plan for the Jewish people.

Next Steps