The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Shemot: Defining a Nation, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.

Parshat Tetzaveh: When Absence Proves Love

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone

RSR Head Shot Gershon Ellinson credit

“And you shall command the children of Israel… And you shall bring forth your brother Aaron and his sons together with him… And you shall speak to all of the wise-hearted.” (Exodus 27:20–28:3)

Often what you really have is that which you give away, what you most profoundly say is what you leave unsaid when you wisely decide not to respond, and the most commanding presence is felt most keenly when that presence is not around. An example of the third phenomenon is to be found in the Torah reading of Tetzaveh, the only portion since the opening of the book of Exodus wherein Moses’ name does not appear even once! Why not?

The Midrashic answer suggests that Moses initiated his own absence. When the Israelites sinned by worshiping the golden calf less than six weeks after the divine revelation at Sinai, God’s anger reaches the breaking point (as it were) and he makes Moses the following offer:

“And now leave Me alone as my anger shall burn and I will destroy them, and I shall make of you a great nation.” (Exodus 32:10)

God suggests that He wipe Israel, no longer worthy of His benevolence, from the pages of history by starting a new nation, a new branch, from the loins of Moses himself.

Others in his shoes might have taken up God’s offer, but Moses refuses to increase his own glory at the expense of the nation. The climax of his brilliant argument is an emotional ultimatum: God must forgive the people.

“…If not [says Moses], blot me, I pray you, out of Your book which You have written.” (Exodus 32:32)

God responds to Moses’ pleas. But Moses’ expression of identification with the people, Moses’ selfless willingness for himself to be obliterated as long as his nation prevails, is eternalized by the fact that in one portion of the Torah, Tetzaveh, the master prophet’s name is “missing in action.”

But on an even deeper level, is there a further significance to the fact that the “blotting out” of Moses’ name occurs specifically in Tetzaveh?

Even a quick glance reveals that our portion is almost entirely devoted to the priesthood. Chapters 28 and 29 deal extensively with all the garments that the priests are commanded to wear, particularly the High Priest, as well as the sacrifices that shall be brought to “sanctify the priests.” In fact, Tetzaveh is often called Parashat Ha-Kohanim, the portion of the priests.

Without a temple, the priest’s public role is severely limited. One area, though, where his presence is still felt (particularly here in Israel and among Sephardim even in the Diaspora) is the daily priestly blessing during the repetition of the morning Amida: at the conclusion of the blessing for peace, the priests, attended to by Levites, stand before the congregation and invoke the biblical blessing: “May God bless you and keep you…” (Num. 6:24). Before intoning these words, they recite the following blessing: “Blessed are You Lord, our God, king of the universe, who has sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron, and has commanded us to bless His people with love.”

The final words in the blessing – “with love” – raise certain questions, since kohanim, or descendants of the High Priest Aaron, are fairly typical people. Some are as sweet as cherry ices in July, and some are as cold as Alaskan ice cubes, but most change in accordance with their mood upon awakening. How can we measure the love-quotient felt by Mr. Cohen when he ascends the bimah for the blessing? How can we legislate the emotion of love which the priests are apparently expected to feel?

The first answer lies in the very nature of the priesthood, in how the Bible legislated the priestly class’s means of livelihood. It’s often said that if you ask a typical entrepreneur, “How ’s business?” if he says, “great,” it means that he is doing well and his competitor is facing bankruptcy; if he says, “good,” that means it’s a good market for everyone, he’s doing well and so is his competitor; and if he says, “terrible,” then that means he’s facing bankruptcy but his competition is earning a lot of money. Gore Vidal was once quoted by Hilma Wolitzer in the New York Times for his poignantly honest observation: “Whenever a friend succeeds a little, something in me dies.”

Enter the kohen. If there is one person who disagrees with Mr. Vidal, it would have to be a member of the priestly class who served in the Temple, received no portion of land to till or business to develop, and who made his living by tithes given him by the Israelites: 1⁄40, 1⁄50, 1⁄60 of their produce depending upon the generosity of the individual donor. And since the tithe was a percentage of the crop, the better the farmer makes out, the happier the kohen would be. To modify the Vidal quote, a kohen would declare: “Whenever a farmer succeeds a little [and certainly whenever he succeeds a lot], something in me lives.” Hence by the very nature of the economic structure set up by the Bible, the kohen-priest could truly give the blessing of prosperity and well-being to the congregation of Israel “with love.”

And it was because the kohanim were freed from professional and agricultural pursuits that they were able to devote themselves entirely to God, the Holy Temple, and the religio-moral needs of the nation. Their single-minded commitment to the holy and the divine was symbolized by the words engraved upon the highly visible gold plate (tzitz) worn around the forehead of the High Priest: “Holy unto God” (Ex. 28:36). Indeed, so important was it deemed that the religious and moral message not be compromised by political sectarian considerations that the Bible legislates a total separation between the religious and legislative spheres. The tribe of Judah was entrusted with sovereign, legislative leadership: “The specter shall not depart from Judah…” (Gen. 49:10), whereas the tribe of Levi was entrusted with religio-moral leadership: “They shall teach Jacob your law, and Israel your Torah…” (Deut. 33:10). No member of the priestly class could control the bank or become a cabinet minister. Thus the kohen, and the religio-moral voice which he represents, emerges in a totally independent position, above the economic interests of special-interest groups and beyond the intrigues of palace politics.

From this perspective we can offer a second interpretation of the words “with love” which conclude the introduction to the priestly benediction: “Love” does not describe the emotions of the kohen, but rather defines the content of the blessing. The most important blessing that can be bestowed upon the nation is that we live together in harmony and love. And only a priestly class separated from petty self- interest and competitions, truly devoted to God, can hope to inspire such love and harmony!

Now we can understand why Moses’ name is absent particularly from this portion of Tetzaveh. If the kohanim are to symbolize selfless commitment to God and to the nation, they cannot possibly have a better example than Moses, who was willing to have his name removed from the Torah for the sake of the future of his people! If any act in the Torah can be singled out for demonstrating pure love, with no strings attached, it is when Moses refuses God’s offer to start a new nation from his loins; Moses would rather that he remain anonymous but let the people of Israel live. Indeed, the essence of Moses’ greatness emerges most clearly from the portion of his absence and anonymity.

Shabbat Shalom

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