Wednesday, 17 Feb 2016

Written by Gershon Silins

Sometimes we learn as much by what we don’t see as by what we do. Such is the situation in our parashah this week. Of all the sections in the last four books of the Torah, as Nehama Leibowitz notes in her “New Studies in Shemot,” this is the only one in which Moses’ name isn’t mentioned. There are a lot of possible reasons for this, and our tradition has considered many of them. Perhaps the Torah wished in this way to let Aaron have all the attention for a change, especially as we find that his name occurs frequently in the portion. It’s also suggested that the absence of Moses’ name indicates the extraordinary meekness and self-effacement that characterizes Moses as he commands the delegation of the priesthood to Aaron and his sons. Moses steps into the background as he moves his brother onto the centre stage. It doesn’t say, “And the Lord spoke to Moses…” as so many of the Torah’s commandments begin. Instead, we see, three times in this portion, the unusual phrase, “and you, yourself, command…” The first place it occurs has to do with the oil for the Ner Tamid. The second is the commandment through which Moses appoints Aaron and his sons to serve as priests, and the third is the commandment to create the priestly vestments, which are then described in glorious detail. They live on, incidentally, in the design of the ornaments that decorate a Sefer Torah: shield and bells and so forth, reminding us of the garments of the priests.

And yet, the initial direction is addressed to Moses: “You, yourself, command the Israelites …” One almost has the sense that Moses is being instructed to take the place of God at a time when the rituals for God’s worship are being established for the future. Perhaps it’s not Moses that is self-effacing here, but God? 

But here, where the physical attributes of the worship of God are being established for all time, Moses is not named. And it’s true that his role is diminished at this moment. The Ark, the Menorah, the Table, the Tent, the various accessories and the awesome garments the priests will wear, all will be created by the craftsmen. One can imagine that Moses might feel diminished. Yes, he led the people out of Egypt, but now that there’s divine glory at stake, he’s off the stage; almost a has-been. Our sages suggest that the phrasing here reminds Moses, and us, that he is still the centre of the action, the one who creates the framework out of which holiness can arise, and thereby creates the space in which God will be made manifest to that generation. All the awesomeness comes from God through Moses to those who will be glorified by it.

Moses is still the star of this story, even when his name isn’t mentioned and while all the action swirls around other people. At this point in the narrative, Moses will lead this people for a long time to come, but a little stepping back would be a good thing to do – if Moses doesn’t step back, no one could ever step forward; there wouldn’t be a place for them. By creating important roles for his brother and the other priests and their descendants, Moses opens the door for the succession that must someday come. As I considered the absence of Moses in this section, I thought of his central role in the creation of our people. He is present as the one who commands, but the man himself is obscured. I almost have the sense of Moses disappearing into his role – the more he commands, the less “Moses” there is. When people take on central roles in society or government, the great challenge is to maintain contact with one’s own humanity. What makes power dangerous to those who wield it is precisely that – it becomes easier and easier to forgot that, even when one is in charge, one is still a person and so is everyone else. Fairy tales sometimes tell us of a ruler going out incognito among the people, learning thereby what the people actually believe, feel and need. I’d like to think that, now and then, Moses went out – unnamed, incognito – among the people he led, learned about them, and recalled that he was a person like them.

I did not notice the absence of Moses’ name until I read about it in Nehama Leibowitz’s book. Perhaps there is something to learn in this as well: that sometimes what is crucially significant is precisely what we don’t see – the dog that doesn’t bark in the night. How can we know how important things – or people – are, when we don’t even know they are there? How many “dogs not barking” are we missing, how many crucial things are passing us by without our knowing it, how many people (including those closest to us) are we not seeing? It is a possibility that one should always keep in mind.

Student Rabbi Gershon Silins

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.