Tetzaveh: Empowering Others

Aaron the Priest by Marc Chagall

We live in a culture in which many have a deep psychological need to record every aspect of their lives on social media.  “Here I am!  Look at me! “While every human being should feel recognition, this ultimate obsession is unhealthy, as it can be reflective of a narcissistic obsession with the self, and often, this undue attention is perhaps undeserved.

However, if there is one character in the Torah who deserves attention, it is Moses.  Moses the Redeemer, Moses the Prophet, Moses the Law giver, Moses the Leader.  Yet, there is one accolade, one recognition, that Moses does not receive. Moses the High Priest.  That honor goes to his brother, Aaron, and the priesthood is the central focus of the parasha.  First, we have the commands to prepare priestly clothing for Aaron and his sons, followed by the instructions of a seven-day installation service.  Indeed, the rabbis point out that this is the only section from the Exodus onward which does not mention the name of Moses even once! Although Moses is the recipient of the commands from God, and the one who is to oversee the installation of the Cohanim (the priests), he does not receive the credit he deserves.  Furthermore, would it not stand to reason that Moses, the one who goes atop Mount Sinai and hears the voice of God, is the appropriate person to claim the priesthood, not his brother?  In exploring the question, hopefully we will understand what makes Moses unique, and provide us with a unique model of leadership.

The Baal Haturim, the 13th century commentary of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (Rosh), opens our parashah with this very observation.  He relates that in next week’s parashah we will learn about the Golden Calf, where the Jewish people created a molten image, an ultimate betrayal of the covenant at Sinai.  In God’s wrath, God informs Moses of their sin while still atop Mount Sinai and commits to destroy the Jewish people and make Moses the leader of a new nation. Moses immediately intercedes, staying God’s hand from utter destruction, although real forgiveness seems elusive. Moses goes down the Mountain, breaks the tablets and destroys the Golden Calf, and having rebuked the people turns to God to demand full forgiveness.  His opening words? “Yet now, if you will, forgive their sin — and if not, please blot me out of your book which you have written” (Ex.32:33).  These are striking words, what one might call holy chutzpah.  Not only will he not agree to become the center of a new nation, but without God’s complete forgiveness- the one aggrieved- he wants nothing to do with this Torah.  Moses in a sense is putting God into a corner.  God acquiesces to Moses’ request (or demand?), and promises that despite their rebellion and sinfulness, a glaring gap between an infinite God and a finite people, God will still dwell within their midst.

In Moses’s striking demand, the frayed relationship between God and Israel is restored.  Yet this demand was not without a cost.  The Baal Haturim mentions that words of a righteous individual, even if they are conditional, are never completely nullified.  Thus, Moses words of ‘erase me from your book’ are partially fulfilled- in this week’s parashah.

At first blush, this comment of the Baal Haturim implies that Moses was punished for his brazen words.  However, on a deeper level the statement reflects the sacrifice of Moses, his endless dedication to the Jewish people.  Moses refused to desert the people- even an erring people.  He utterly rejected a new nation which he would build, and expressed solidarity with his brethren, even if they did not deserve it.  The Talmud records an actual struggle between Moses and God; the tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were written were six handbreadths.  Moses was holding the bottom two handbreadths and God figuratively was holding the upper two handbreadths.  This image graphically represents a partnership between God and humanity, the transcendent and the immanent, the infinite and finite.  At the moment the Golden Calf is fashioned, God attempts to take the Tablets back to heaven.  Moses refuses.  Better a broken covenant than no covenant at all. He grabs the Tablets from the figurative hands of God, casting them to the ground.  According to the Talmudic tradition, Moses’s actions are praised in the last verse of the Torah, which describes Moses’s ‘strong arm’, an arm that was stronger than that of God! (Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 4:5).

However, why is his name missing in this week’s parahshah per se.  Is there a thematic connection between the Golden Calf narrative and this week’s parashah?  In fact, there is.  While the chronology of the second half of Exodus is hotly debated among many of the medieval commentators, many see the command to build the Tabernacle itself as a response to the event of the Golden Calf.   While literarily the command of the Tabernacle is placed before the sin of the Golden Calf, chronologically these laws are given after. The Tabernacle was not only a place in which God and the people could connect, but also the place of atonement.  Sin and guilt offerings, both on individual and collective levels, were offered on the altar.  Thus, the Tabernacle itself, and later the Temple itself, affirmed the capacity for people to mediate a relationship with God.  Still, there is a constant need for expiation, for atonement.  Yom Kippur itself, the tenth of Tishrei, was the day in which God finally forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf, and therefore every year the day offers the promise of reconciliation, but at the same time it is a day of confession of sin.   In rabbinic thought, every sin in a way partakes of that initial rebellion of the Golden Calf (see for example B.T. Sanhedrin 102a).

If this is true, Moses’s disappearing name makes sense in this week’s parashah, as the entire parashah is about Aaron and his sons- both the clothing he is to wear as well as his installation.  If we accept the contention that the command to build the Tabernacle occurred after the Golden Calf, it stands to reason that the priesthood itself was a response to the Golden Calf.  By omitting his name, it is as if the narrative shields Moses. Moses had nothing to do with that!  Aaron, however, was not an innocent bystander- far from it.  Aaron was the one who gave into the people’s demands, fashioning the Golden Calf himself.  In Moses’s absence, Aaron was the leader, and he inadvertently led the people to disaster.  Moses accused his brother. “Moshe said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you have brought a great sin on them?” (Ex. 32:21). If so, the choice of Aaron as high priest seems very inappropriate.

Because Aaron inadvertently caused the people to sin, perhaps he is also the one who is to spend his life bringing atonement for the entire people.  He is of the people, although more so, and it is he who will spend his life interceding on their behalf.  Moses is the man on the mountain, but Aaron lives amongst the people, knows their capacity and potential, but also their foibles.  In many ways, Moses’s demand that the God dwell within a flawed people, is represented by Aaron.  Aaron and not Moses is the central character here.

However, there is another dynamic at play as well.   We should not assume that a person is only judged on their past deeds, and not their future potential.  Even if Aaron was flawed, Aaron had great gifts as well.   Moses’s stepping back and installing his brother is a statement of his belief in him, and by extension the people.  Many Rabbinic statements imply that this was not easy at all, and Moses all along had assumed he would be the High Priest (see for example Shemot Rabbah 37:1). Who more worthy? Moses had nothing to do with the Golden Calf and has been God’s dedicated servant!   Nonetheless, Moses is the one who oversees the installation of the others as priests.  Aaron and his brothers are publicly empowered.

What is unique about the relationship between Moses and Aaron is the very lack of struggle so prominent among brothers in the book of Genesis.  Each brother is not vested in their own power or advancement, but the success of one another.  Moses sees the latent potential in every person and is not invested in his own power or ego.  He is vested in the mission of the people, and every individual within it.  Moses supports Aaron, just as Aaron supported Moses.

Moses said to [Aaron], “The Holy One, blessed be He, has told me to ordain you as high priest.” Aaron said to him, “You have labored on the tabernacle; so shall I be made high priest?” He said to him, “By your life, even though you are being made high priest, it is as if I were being made [high priest], for just as you were glad for me in my greatness, so I am glad for you in your greatness (Tanhuma Shemini, ch. 3).

In the book of Numbers, we will see this same Moses.  Two individuals, Eldad and Medad, prophesy in the camp.  Joshua, protecting the honor of his master, proposed they be destroyed.  Moses responds, “I wish that the entire people of the Lord were prophets and that the Lord would confer his spirit on them all!” (Numbers 11:29). Now if that were true, there would be no need for Moses in the first place!  Again, this episode reflects Moses’s ultimate belief in the people.

What characterizes Moses leadership?  Moses knows he is unique, but realizes that if the people are to endure, he must enable others to grow and become.  He not only sees the flaws of those he leads but also sees the potential.   In the installation of priests, Moses is at the very center.  However, in training them, he is relinquishing this authority in the belief that others will achieve greatness. He is not threatened by his brother.  He trains Aaron and his sons, and relinquishes his own authority, and steps back to allow others to take on the mantle of authority.  Thus, the disappearing Moses in this week’s parashah is the very point; Moses demanded from God that a people could not be cut out from his own cloth but needed to emerge from the people themselves.  In our case, Aaron who failed at the moment of the Golden Calf, is the one who represents that the relationship between God and the people endured.

In our lives we may not have priests and Tabernacles, but we have relationships with others along with expectations.  Sometimes these expectations are fulfilled, but often others disappoint us.  (Others probably think the same thing about us.) Yet Moshe teaches us to also empower others and see their potential.  Leadership is about facilitating the growth of others.  To see change in a relationship, there are times when we need to pull back and allow the other to grow on their own.  We need our own name taken out of the parasha.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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