Where is Moshe?

  • Harav Yehuda Amital







by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik









Where is Moshe?

Translated by Kaeren Fish



"And you shall command Bnei Yisrael, that they take for you pure olive oil… And you – bring near to you Aharon your brother, and his sons… to minister to Me… And you shall make the holy garments for Aharon your brother… and you shall speak to all those who are wise of heart… and they shall make Aharon's garments…." (Shemot 27:20-28:3)


Many questions arise here. What is the meaning and the purpose of Aharon being "brought near" specifically by Moshe? What is the root of the difference between this parasha, which speaks about taking for Moshe – "that they take for you…" – and the previous parasha, in which the taking was for God: "that they take for Me a contribution…"?


Most problematic of all is the question of why Moshe's name is not mentioned in this parasha at all.


The Ba'al Ha-Turim explains, based on the midrash:


"Moshe is not mentioned in this sedra, unlike all the rest of Chumash Shemot, for from the time that Moshe was born there is no sedra in which he is not mentioned. The reason is because he said, 'Erase me, I pray You, from Your book which You have written' – and the curse of a sage, even if it is conditional, is fulfilled and comes about." (Tetzave 27:20)


A different midrash teaches:


"'And you – bring near to you' – this is as it is written, 'Were it not for Your Torah as my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.' When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe, 'And you – bring near to you,' he was pained. [God] said to him, 'I had a Torah, and I gave it to you; for were it not for [the Torah], I would have destroyed the world I created.' This may be compared to a sage who married a relative, and after she had spent ten years with him she had not yet borne children. He said to her, 'Seek out a [second] wife for me.' He told her, 'I could have married [a wife] without your permission, but I seek your humble [assent].' Likewise the Holy One, blessed be He, told Moshe: 'I could have made your brother the Kohen Gadol without involving you, but I wanted to show that you are greater than he is.'" (Shemot Rabba, Tetzaveh 37:4)


The relationship between the metaphor that the midrash presents and the situation under discussion seems problematic: in the parable, the man's female relative bore him no children, and he therefore had to marry another wife. But what deficiency was there in Moshe, as a result of which he could not be made the Kohen Gadol?


Let us propose a single explanation for all the questions we have raised.


Following the Revelation at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah, Am Yisrael is commanded to build the Mishkan, "that I may dwell in their midst." Moshe, the master of all prophets, concludes his bringing down of the Torah and its transmission to the nation. From this point onwards, his task as leader is to teach, develop, inculcate and transmit it to the following generations.


Moshe had reason to be wary of the construction of the Mishkan and the limiting of the Divine service to its holy Sanctuary, its main focus being the offering of sacrifices and the like. Moshe feared for the fate of Torah study throughout the camp, since the service in the Mishkan was more experiential, more colorful, more emotional. The enthusiasm aroused by this experience of holiness could easily overshadow the relatively dull and tedious experience of study.


It is specifically in light of this concern that God commands him, "And you – bring near to you Aharon, your brother", because "I wanted to show that you are greater than he is." The Sanctuary attracts the heart, while the Torah appeals to the intellect. God sets down here that the colorful, impressive and rousing service in the Mishkan is not more important than involvement in Torah study.


Involvement in Torah cannot be carried out fully by the kohen, who carries the choshen with the urim ve-tumim upon his heart. The Torah is an earthly pursuit; "it is not in the heavens." It cannot be taught by the prophet.


The author of Ketzot ha-Choshen writes, in his Introduction, that Torah study is given specifically to human beings, who are not like angels:


"But the Holy One, blessed be He, chose us and gave us the Torah, [which is to be kept] according to the decision of the human intellect, even if it does not conform to the [divine] truth… rather, it is true according to the determination of the human intellect."


Only the earthly, material human being, with his doubts and uncertainties, with his non-objective view of the world – only he can truly study and teach Torah. We also learn this from the midrash’s comments on the verse, "Moshe, the man of God" – "the lower part of him was human, the upper part of him was God-like" (Devarim Rabba 11, 4).


Moshe is not mentioned in our parasha, and that is his greatness. Here God turns to Moshe the man, the great leader who is able to teach and to issue rulings. Until now, Moshe would transmit the Torah (from God), and Aharon would teach it. Now, with the conclusion of that stage, the roles are reversed: Moshe teaches, and Aharon becomes the Kohen Gadol – the holy man who enters the Holy of holies. Moshe could not be the Kohen Gadol. The Torah that is studied does not address the absolute truth of Moshe the prophet; it addresses the human Moshe, who judges between man and his fellow.


"And you shall command… and you – bring near to you… and you shall speak" – you as a person, as a human being with weaknesses, desires and difficulties. Despite the well-known teaching, "A sage is greater than a prophet," Moshe, the master of the prophets, when he teaches Torah, is the master of the sages.


At the same time, the Mishkan also exerts an influence on the halakhic rulings of the sage, although not in a manner that is consciously felt. A Sanhedrin that is located in the courtyard of the Temple is not the same as a Sanhedrin that convenes when the Temple is in ruins – even though the ruling has no connection with the experience of the Temple service. The Mishkan casts its light on the teachings of the sages.


The rulings themselves must be made out of cool-headed human thinking; it cannot be done by the prophet. Therefore, "you – bring near to you": you as a person must appoint the Kohen Gadol, for you yourself cannot be the Kohen Gadol; nevertheless "you are greater than he is."