Tetzave: The ideal Jew

Tetzave: The ideal Jew

Temple Beth Sholom, Fair Lawn, Conservative

Parashat Tetzave brings something new to the Torah reading since we started the book of Exodus. It is a parasha where Moses is not mentioned! Our Sages tried to explain this rarity in different ways. The Vilna Gaon explained it by linking the parasha to the Jewish Calendar: Moses died on the seventh day of Adar, the time when commonly we read Tetzaveh, and that loss is reflected in the text.

The Baal Haturim explains: In the following parasha, Moses asks God to forgive the people and “if not..blot me out of the book you have written.” The Talmud teaches that a curse of a Sage comes true even if it is conditional, so Moses’ name was blotted out for one week.

The Panea Raza linked Moses’ absence in the parasha with the incident at the burning bush, when Moses asked God to “Please send somebody else.” God was angry with Moses and appointed Aaron to go with him, dividing the two roles Moses should fulfill, that of a spiritual leader, a prophet, and that of a more physical leader, a priest.

Our parasha is centered on the figure of the priest, the cohen: his task at the Tabernacle, the garments he wears, and the Tabernacle where he performs his sacred work.

So what is missing is not only Moses, but his role: the prophet.

Jewish values and tradition and the spirit of the Torah were built by the two characters of priest and prophet, navi and cohen. (True, there were some important kings, but they were confronted many times by the prophets when their deeds didn’t measure up.)

There is a great difference between priest and prophet: The role of the priest was dynastic. Until today, who is a cohen? The son of a cohen! The same with the levites. Those who were dedicated to the work of the Tabernacle got their jobs from their fathers.

But the role of the prophet was not inherited. The sons of Moses were not prophets.

The priest was related to his office. There was no room for personality or charisma. Compare that with the different personalities of the prophets, each of whom had his own style. The priest did his job in silence. The prophet did his with spoken words.

Time didn’t matter for prophets. Whenever the vision came was the time for action. The priest lived and was ruled by the calendar. He used words like holy, pure, and impure to instruct and distinguish, to heal. But it was the prophet who didn’t let ritual itself become idolatry, reminding the nation that peoplehood and brotherhood is the ultimate goal of religion. The repeated ways of worship are but exercises to develop a personality that will allow us to become God’s partners in recreating his creation for the better each day. The priest is the one who will assure Jewish continuity through maintaining the common bond of coming together to share the spirituality of Judaism. The prophet will make sure we stay focused in our mission as Jews to represent our values.

Our parasha starts with God commanding the people to bring oil to have an eternal light in the tent of meeting. We have an eternal light in our synagogues in front of the ark. It was Moses who lit the fire in the souls of the Jews, but Aaron made it an eternal light. Both represent the ideal Jew, the one who finds in his tradition and rituals the source to become “a light for the nations” while making sure the next generation will continue to fulfill the vision given to Abraham: to become a living blessing.

Based on a commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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