“Where is Moses?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Tetzaveh focuses in depth on the special vestments that the lay priests and the High Priest wore when they officiated at the Tabernacle services.

Since the entire design and execution of the Tabernacle was done under Moses’ supervision, it is particularly surprising that the name of Moses does not appear at all in parashat Tetzaveh. In fact, from the moment that the birth of Moses is announced in Exodus 2, Moses’ name appears in every parasha, with the exception of Tetzaveh.

This most conspicuous omission of Moses’ name occurs as well in the Passover Hagaddah. Except for a brief reference in a Biblical verse that contains his name, Moses is not mentioned at all in the Hagaddah liturgy. The rabbis explain that the author of the Hagaddah did not want to present a false impression that it was Moses who took the people out of Egypt, rather than G-d. Therefore, his name was omitted from the Hagaddah.

But what could possibly be the reason for the omission of Moses’ name in parashat Tetzaveh, where Moses plays such a central role?

Some commentators suggest that Moses’ name is purposely omitted, in order to allow Aaron his moment in the sun, as he assumed the role of High Priest. Others suggest that perhaps Moses, in his modesty, bowed out of the scene that focuses on Aaron and his sons.

The Ba’al HaTurim attributes the omission of Moses’ name to the fact that Moses himself requested the omission, when he cried out to G-d (Exodus 32:32): “V’ah’tah eem tee’sah chah’tah’tahm, v’eem ah’yin, m’chay’nee nah me’sif’r’chah ah’sher kah’tav’tah,” and now, cried Moses before G-d, if You will, forgive their [the People of Israel] sin [of worshiping the Golden Calf], but if not, erase me now from Your book that You have written.

The omission of the name of Moses serves, perhaps, to confirm the popular quip, “Be careful of what you wish for… because it may come true.” Our forefather Jacob paid a stiff price for his careless words, when Laban accused Jacob of stealing his fetishes. Jacob, not knowing that his beloved wife Rachel had stolen her father’s idols, responded boldly (Genesis 31:32), “With whomever you find your fetishes, that person shall not live!” The rabbis teach that as a result of Jacob’s words, Rachel does indeed die just as the family enters the land of Canaan.

From these examples, our sages learn that when a righteous or wise person prays, or utters a curse, even a conditional prayer or curse, those words are destined to be fulfilled in some way. This, then, says the Ba’al HaTurim, is the reason why Moses’ name does not appear in parashat Tetzaveh.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik asks: Why does the omission of Moses’ name occur specifically in parashat Tetzaveh? Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that it is because it was in parashat Tetzaveh that G-d first informed Moses that he will not serve as the High Priest, but rather that his brother, Aaron, and Aaron’s children, will be the priestly officiants.

Our sages suggest that G-d originally intended for Moses to fulfil the positions of both leader and High Priest. But when Moses vigorously resisted G-d’s pleas that he serve as G-d’s emissary to release the people from Egypt, G-d decided to transfer the priestly duties and grant that honor to Aaron. When Moses said to G-d (Exodus 4:13): “Sh’lahch nah b’yahd tish’lach,” Send Your mission with whomever You wish to send, just not me–G-d took the priesthood from Moses and transferred it to Aaron.

Our sages note that although Aaron became the permanent High Priest, Moses did act as a temporary High Priest during the week-long consecration ceremony of the Tabernacle. But it was only during this induction period, before Aaron was permanently appointed to serve as the High Priest. Since the instructions for the consecration period are first mentioned in parashat Tetzaveh, Exodus 29:35-37, Moses’ name is omitted specifically from this parasha.

Rabbi Yissocher Frand (a popular contemporary Torah commentator, based in Baltimore) quotes the Succat David (contemporary commentary on the Five Books of Moses authored by Rabbi David Kviat), noting that it is indeed strange that Moses’ name is eliminated. After all, as a result of Moses’ fervent pleas on behalf of the Jewish people, G-d forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf, saving the people from destruction. Since Moses’ request for forgiveness for the people was granted, Moses’ name should not have been erased. Nevertheless, says the Succat David, righteous people have to be particularly careful with their words. Rabbi Frand points out the irony, that each year, parashat Tetzaveh is read on the week of the seventh of Adar, when Moses’ yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his death, is marked.

The Succat David, citing the Zohar (the mystical interpretation of the Bible), suggests that had Noah argued with G-d on behalf of the generation of the flood as forcefully as Moses did for the people of his generation, there would never have been a flood, and the people would not have perished.

All this only goes to further underscore the extraordinary greatness of Moses. Therefore, concludes the Succat David, the omission of Moses’ name in parashat Tetzaveh could hardly be seen as punishment. It is, rather, a price that Moses was willing to pay in order to save his beloved people. The great Moses was prepared to say to G-d: “Erase me from the book You have written,” because he was much more concerned with the safety and security of the Jewish people than with his own honor.

The mashgiach (religious supervisor) of Mesivtah Tifereth Jerusalem, Rabbi Michel Barenbaum, suggests an alternate reason for the omission of Moses’ name from parashat Tetzaveh. Parashat Tetzaveh deals virtually exclusively with priestly matters. By omitting Moses’ name from parashat Tetzaveh, the Torah powerfully negates Korach’s accusation against Moses (Numbers 16) of being partial toward his brother, Aaron, and favoring Aaron at the expense of other members of the tribe. By omitting Moses’ name, it is as if Moses declares: “I did not designate Aaron to serve as High Priest, clearly it was G-d. My name is not even mentioned in this parasha where Aaron is told that he will be the High Priest.”

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto best sums up the role of Moses in his classic work, The Path of the Just:

These are the true shepherds of Israel whom the Holy One Blessed be He greatly desires, who sacrifice themselves for His sheep, who concern themselves with their peace and well-being, and exert themselves for it in every way possible, who always stand in the breach to pray for them. The situation is analogous to that of a father, who loves no man more than the one whom he sees to have a genuine love for his sons. Human nature attests to this. (End of Chapter 19)

The readiness of Moses to renounce his spiritual future, in order to protect the people of Israel, serves as an unparalleled example to all past, present and future leaders of Israel.

May you be blessed.

Please Note: On this Shabbat, an additional Torah portion, known as Parashat Zachor, is read. It is the second of four additional thematic Torah portions that are read on the Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, following the reading of parashat Tetzaveh, an additional Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.