Moshe's Disappearance

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion





Moshe's Disappearance


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





And as for you, you shall command the Children of Yisrael to bring you pure olive oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling the Eternal Lamp. (27:20)


            Our parasha begins with the Divine instruction that Moshe should command the Jewish people to bring beaten olives, so that there is oil for the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Lamp.  However, God's command – ve-ata tetzaveh – "And as for you, you should instruct," places unusual emphasis on Moshe Rabbeinu.  The redundant pronoun, "ve-ata," replaces what should have been either the simple future form, "tetzaveh" (you shall command), or the imperative "tzav" (command).  This sudden focus on Moshe provoked much discussion among the commentators – has Moshe not been God's agent throughout the entire process of building the Mishkan?  Even in the preceding sections, Moshe plays a central role: "And you shall make the altar" (27:1), "And you shall make the altar's horns" (27:2), and so forth.  What happened that required the Torah to use suddenly the emphatic form, ve-ata?


            Ramban suggests a possible answer.  In the manufacture of the other sacred items, Moshe's role is to instruct and supervise.  However, with regard to the sacred olive oil, Moshe must personally ascertain its purity.


            Ba'al Ha-turim connects the absence of Moshe's proper name with the self-sacrificing challenge that Moshe made to God, "Erase me from Your book which you have written! (32:32)."  This interpretation clearly assumes that these sections occurred after the Sin of the Golden Calf (the approach of Rashi, echoing the Midrash Tanchuma, and others).  Moshe pleaded for the survival of his people by offering his life in exchange.  If the people are to be destroyed, than his name must also be deleted from God's book. 


            Paradoxically, the absence of Moshe's name is noted through the repeated emphatic calls to Moshe: "And as for you…." There is naming and anonymity, both presence and absence.  We normally read this parasha during the week of the seventh of Adar – the date tradition identifies as both Moshe's date of birth and of his death – both entry and departure simultaneously. 


            When we examine the section even closer, we note that the unusual call ve-ata - And as for you – reoccurs twice more in the first five verses:


And as for you, you shall bring forth Aharon your brother with his sons, from among the Children of Yisrael, to serve Me as priests.  (28:1)

And as for you, you shall speak to all who are wise of heart, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, to make Aharon's clothing, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest.  (28:3)


In all three cases where Moshe is singled out, it is to assume a responsibility that paradoxically, is not his own.  Aharon (and his children) will attend the Ner Tamid, Aharon will serve as Kohan Gadol, and Aharon will wear the sacred priestly garments.  Unlike Moshe, Aharon's name dominates the beginning of the parasha, appearing seven times. 




The following Midrash elucidates the tension created by the text between the vanishing Moshe and Aharon:


"And as for you, you shall bring forth Aharon your brother with his sons, from among the Children of Yisrael, to serve Me as priests." – When God told Moshe to bring Aharon forward, He injured Moshe … This is like a wise man who married his relative, and after ten years together, when she had not borne children, he said to her, "Seek me a wife!"  He said to her, "I could not marry without your permission, but I seek your cooperation."  So God said to Moshe, "I could have made your brother High Priest without informing you, but I wish you to be great over him."


The metaphor is startling.  Moshe's appointing Aharon to serve as Kohen Gadol is equivalent to a husband asking his wife to find him a more fertile spouse.  Sefat Emet takes several approaches in deciphering this analogy.  In some of his derashot[1], Sefat Emet suggests that Moshe's elevated spiritual stature was beyond the comprehension of the Jewish people.  Therefore, God needed to appoint Aharon in Moshe's stead, for his spiritually was more accessible to the nation.  In this understanding, it is the people's unworthiness, not Moshe's failings, that removes Moshe from the position of Kohen.  In other derashot, Sefat Emet proposes that Aharon is simply the external manifestation of Moshe [in Kabbalistic terms, Moshe is the kol (the internal voice), and Aharon is the dibbur (the external sound)].  However, in one year, Sefat Emet suggested that the very fact that Moshe achieved such closeness to God precluded him from serving in roles that were, by nature, hereditary.  Fathers can teach Kingly and priestly functions to their children.  Through education and imitation, they can be passed on through generations.  Not so with the encounter of an individual with the Divine.  Moshe's spiritual achievements were inimitable.  As the very relationship is unique, it defies duplication or imitation.    The Rabbis remarked upon this aspect of Moshe's service at the beginning of his initiation.  When God commanded Moshe at the burning bush "Do not come any closer" in response to Moshe's exclamation "Hineni – here I am" (Shemot 3:4,5):


And he said, "Here I am!" – 'Here I am,' ready for priesthood.  'Here I am," ready for kingship … God replied, 'Do not approach closer' – that is, your children will not offer sacrifices (literally – bring close to me), for the priesthood is reserved for your brother Aharon … and the kingship is reserved for King David.  Yet, Moshe attained both (temporarily), the priesthood when he officiated during the seven days of consecration for the Mishkan, and the kingship, as it states, "Then he became a King in Yeshurun" (Devarim 33:5) (Shemot Rabba 2:13).


While Moshe did not manage to attain greatness for his descendants, he did achieve these ranks in his lifetime.




However, there is another theme in rabbinic literature regarding Moshe's failure to be appointed Kohen Gadol.  After repeated attempts to convince, cajole, and persuade Moshe to serve as is emissary to free the Jewish people, the Torah states, "And God's anger burned" (4:14).  Rashi comments:


"And God's anger burned" – Rabbi Yeshoshua ben Karcha stated, "Every burning anger recorded in the Torah leaves a mark.  Here, there is no trace recorded, and we have not found any punishment that resulted from that anger."  Rabbi Yossi responded, "Here too, we can find a hint.  "There is Aharon your brother, a Levite" (4:14) – who was destined to serve as a Levite, not priest, while the priesthood I had determined would issue from you.  From now on, he will be the priest, and you the Levite, as it is written, "And Moshe, the man of G-d, his sons were named as Levites." (Divrei Ha-yamim 1 23:14)


Rashi focuses on the textual links between God's anger and Aharon's arrival.  In this understanding, the loss of the priesthood is Moshe's punishment for his repeated failure to heed the Divine call.  We sense though, as the previous Midrash indicated, that God's appointment of Aharon to the role of Kohen Gadol is an injury to Moshe.  Having led the people out of Egypt to Sinai, having entered the fire to receive the Divine writ, having been the focus of all of God's instructions about the building of the Mishkan, naming Moshe as the Kohen Gadol would have been the logical culmination.   A quick survey of Jewish history also warranted this conclusion.  In Sefer Bereishit, it is the younger brother who achieves greatness at the expense of the older.  Suddenly, and ironically, the notion of primogeniture returns.  However, as Rashi notes, this reversal was not unjustified:


"Even now he is setting out to meet you" – when you go to Egypt "and he will see you will joy in his heart."  He will not, as you think, resent your rise to greatness.  For this, Aharon came to merit the breastplate that is set over the heart. 


Unlike Kayin, Yishmael, Esav, Reuven, and all the resentful older brothers of Sefer Bereishit, Aharon felt nothing but joy and gladness at his younger brother's accomplishments and achievements.  The Midrash showers praise upon Aharon's altruism:


Said Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, "The same heart that rejoiced in his brother's greatness, let precious stones be set upon it, as it states, 'And Aharon shall bear the names of the Children of Yisrael on the breastplate on his heart.' (28:29)"


The Midrash concludes by commending Moshe's wholehearted acceptance of the Divine decree:


Moshe told Aharon, "God has instructed me to appoint you Kohen Gadol."  Aharon replied, "You labored so hard and long on the Mishkan, and I am to be the Kohen Gadol?"  Moshe replied, "As you live, even though you have been appointed Kohen Gadol, it is as though I had become Kohen Gadol!  Just as you rejoiced when I rose to greatness, so too, I rejoice in your greatness!!"  (Midrash Tanchuma, Shemini 3)

[1] Sefat Emet, according to Chasidic tradition, spoke about the weekly parasha at the third Shabbat meal to the Hasidim who had gathered there.   His remarks, which combine sensitivity to text, explorations in Midrashic literature, and discourses in human spirituality and psychology, were then transcribed after Shabbat had exited.  It is not uncommon for Sefat Emet to revisit the same theme several times over the years, with each year providing a new approach or insight on the previously discussed idea.