Leading with Absence

Tetzavveh By :  David Hoffman Posted On Feb 12, 2011 / 5771 | Main Commentary

With the first words of our parashah, we see the shadow, but not the body, of a man.

V’ata tetzavvah et b’nai yisrael” (Exod. 27:20): “And you shall instruct the children of Israel” in the production of oil for the menorah to be used in the Tabernacle.

Only two verses later we read:

V’ata hakrev eilekha et aharon ahiekha v’et banav eto” (28:1): “And you shall bring forward Aaron your brother and his sons . . . to serve Me [God] as priests.”

Then again in two verses,

V’ata tedaber el khol hakhmei lev” (28:3): And you shall instruct all who are skillful” to make the sacral vestments for Aaron the high priest.

Instead of the familiar language of introduction—”And God said to Moses . . . ” we find the repeated use of the pronoun you (ata). These uses of the generic ata, one following on the heels of another, call our attention to the name that is not called: Moshe. Indeed, this language introduces a remarkable aspect of our Torah portion. From Moshe’s birth until the end of the Torah, this is the only parashah where Moshe’s name is never mentioned. Moshe is the principal actor in the undertakings of this reading, and yet his name is never explicitly invoked.

The language of V’ata (and you) is noteworthy and suggestive for a number of reasons. In truth, the pronoun ata is not needed for the sentence. The Torah could easily communicate the same idea with more economical language, employing the command form, tzav—command the Children of Israel” (see, for example, Leviticus 6:2). This construction does not require the use of a pronoun at all. However, the Torah chooses to address Moshe through the pronoun, indicating his involvement in implementing these instructions, yet also creating a symbolic distance between him and the Children of Israel. He is there, yet he is not fully there.

Secondly, the absence of Moshe’s name in these opening sentences is underscored by the presence of Aaron’s name. In the same verses that repeat three times in staccato fashion: “V’ata (and you) . . .  (Exod. 27:20–28:3), Aaron’s name is mentioned 6 times; by the end of the parashah, Aaron’s name appears on 30 occasions. Moshe recedes in this parashah, while Aaron and his sons, who function as the people’s priests, step into the spotlight. Strikingly, it is Moshe’s very actions—which are performed not from his identity as “Moshe” but from the faceless “you,” (ata)—that enable Aaron and his sons to assume their place in the public eye: Moshe’s primary tasks in this parashah are to appoint and install his brother as high priest and his sons as priests and to furnish them with the proper vestments for their service.

There is a reading of these events that explains that Moshe was passed over for the high priesthood as punishment. Because Moshe was initially unwilling to assume the role of God’s agent at the Burning Bush, God chose Aaron to be appointed high priest (see, for example, Tanhuma Shemini 3). Moshe did not “step up,” as it were, to God’s request and, therefore, our parashah, with the choice of Aaron as high priest and the absence of Moshe’s name, serves as punishment for his unwillingness to answer the call of God.

But I submit that we need not understand this parashah in these terms. Rather, the Torah presents an important lesson of leadership. Moshe has courageously led the Children of Israel. He served as God’s voice to Pharaoh, encouraged the Israelites at the splitting of the sea, led them in war against Amalek, and then went up the mountain to get them the law. Moshe has been at the center of the community during an important stage and now God, as it were, asks Moshe to withdraw. The absence of his name from our Torah reading can be understood as a gentle request from God that it is time for Moshe to make room in his leadership for others. Stepping back into the shadows, Moshe actively enables a new model of leadership to emerge.

Such is the case with great leadership and all covenantal relationships. One of our tasks is to manage our own egos. We need to be mindful of when it is time to engage in tzimtzum, that is, a contraction of self. Unlike other moments in the Torah, Moshe does not resist. He does not complain or protest. He knows this is right. Moshe responds to the generic you (ata) and he anoints Aaron, his brother, empowering him to serve God and the community. The message is clear: it is only by means of the contraction of the self that room will be created for the indispensable work of others that will ultimately allow for the Presence of God to abide in our midst.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.