Tetzaveh: Missing Moshe

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From Where I Stand

By Rabbi Yossy Goldman

“And you shall command.”

—Sh’mos 27:20

A seemingly dubious distinction belongs to this week’s parashah, Tetzaveh. It is the only reading in the Torah, from the moment he was born until his passing, where the name of Moshe is not mentioned. The opening words are “V’Atah tetzaveh”—“and you shall command.” The “you” is Moshe, and G‑d is telling him what to instruct the Jewish people. But the verse only says “you”; no name, no Moshe.

Why? Some explain that Moshe Rabbeinu’s yahrzeit, 7 Adar, almost always occurs in this week, and the absence of his name is an appropriate symbol of his demise. Others suggest that it is as a result of Moshe’s own words. Remember the Golden Calf episode? The people had sinned, and G‑d was going to wipe them out and start over again with Moshe and his own dynasty. Moshe defended his errant flock before the Al‑mighty, arguing for their forgiveness. And if not? Well, Moshe used some very strong words there. “Mecheini na misifrecha”—“Erase me from Your book that You have written!”

Moshe himself said his name should be erased from the Torah if G‑d would not forgive the people. So even though He did forgive them, the words of a tzaddik are eternal and leave an impression. The effect of those words, therefore, was that somewhere in the Book, in Torah, Moshe’s name would be erased. Moshe would be missing where he normally should have appeared. Thus it is that, in the week when we remember his passing, Moshe’s name is gone.

So say a variety of commentaries. But, characteristically, the Chassidic commentaries, reflecting the inner dimension of Torah, go a step further. What’s in a name? they ask. Who needs a name? Does a person require a name for himself? Not really; he knows who he is. So a name is essentially for other people to be able to attract his attention, so they can call him, address him, and so on. In other words, a name is only an external handle, a vehicle for others to identify or describe him, but it is all outside of himself and peripheral to his own true, inner identity. Names are secondary to the essence of an individual. The essence of every person, who he or she really is, is beyond any name, beyond any superficial title.

So why is Moshe’s name not mentioned? Because he said, “Erase me” at the Golden Calf? Because he spoke with chutzpah before the Al‑mighty? You think it is a punishment? Not at all, says the Lubavitcher Rebbe. On the contrary, this was perhaps the greatest moment in the life of our greatest spiritual leader.

What would we imagine to be Moshe’s finest hour? Receiving the Torah? Leading the Jews to the Exodus? Splitting the Sea? Would you be shocked if I told you it is none of the above? Indeed, Moshe’s finest, most glorious, absolutely greatest moment on earth was when he stood his ground before G‑d, pleading for his people, fighting for their forgiveness. His most brilliant, shining hour was when he put his own life and future on the line and said, “G‑d, if they go, I go! If You refuse to forgive these sinners, then erase my name from Your holy Torah!” It was through Moshe’s total commitment toward his people that the faithful shepherd saved his flock from extinction. And G‑d Himself was pleased with His chosen leader’s words and acceded to his request.

Is that something to be ashamed of? Far from it. It is something to be immensely proud of and something that serves as a shining example of what true leadership is all about. It is dedication and sacrifice, not power and honor.

So the absence of Moshe’s name this week, far from being a negative, carries with it a profound blessing. It does not say the name Moshe, but V’Atah—and you. A name is only a name, but here G‑d talks to Moshe in the second person directly. You. And the you represents something far deeper than a mere name: it is the you symbolizing the spiritual essence of Moshe. And what is that essence? Mesirus nefesh—his unflinching commitment to his people, come what may—even if it was at his own expense. This is the very soul of Moshe, the faithful shepherd. The you that goes beyond the superficial and beyond what any name could possibly encapsulate. It represents the deepest core of Moshe’s neshamah, deeper than any appellation or detailed description could hope to portray.

Moshe’s name may be missing, but his spiritual presence is felt in a way that no name could ever do justice to. May all our leaders take note and be inspired. v

Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.

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