Jewish tradition teaches that as Moses was the Israelites’ first political leader, his older brother, Aaron, was their first religious leader. Yet for all their unique accomplishments, neither Aaron nor Moses could have achieved their respective greatness had it not been for the other.
Slow of speech, Moses required the older Aaron’s command of language when he confronted Pharaoh; and Aaron, for his part, would never have been anointed high priest had it not been for the younger Moses.
Where we read of one, we can always be sure the other is close at hand.
But where these brothers travel their paths to prominence in virtual parallel, in this week’s Torah portion, it appears Aaron moves onto center stage alone. Indeed, it is in Tetzaveh that we learn about the priesthood in greatest detail and, as we do so, for the first and only time in a Torah portion since we are first introduced to Moses early in the Book of Exodus, his name appears not a single time. To sharpen the point, as Aaron assumes his place as the Israelites’ high priest, Moses is seemingly absent from our text.
Significantly, this is but one of three times tradition finds Moses missing in action. The other two instances are worth recalling.
In the first, while Moses is atop Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, the Israelites (who are alone for the first time) allow themselves to believe that he has disappeared. Because Moses is not physically alongside this first generation of free men and women, they convince themselves Moses (out of sight for 40 days and nights) has abandoned them; and thus, for all intents and purposes, he has.
In the second instance, in an effort to ensure that future generations would not mistake Moses’ role in leading us out of Egypt with God’s having redeemed us with an outstretched hand, the second century rabbis responsible for redacting the Passover hagada deliberately excise Moses from the retelling of the Exodus.
In both cases, I submit, Moses’ MIA status is based on fear. The young Israelites’ child-like fear causes them to believe that to not see someone is the same as to have lost them; the ancient rabbis’ paternalistic fear prompts them to cut Moses out of the hagada to ensure that you and I would not misidentify the true hero of the Passover story.
But Tetzaveh is a different case entirely.
Throughout the Book of Exodus, Moses’ and Aaron’s names are listed interchangeably. In one place we read of “Moses and Aaron;” in another, we read of “Aaron and Moses.” From this, tradition teaches both brothers are due equal honor.
In the real world, of course, even as we say all persons are equal, we recognize there are situations in which there are “firsts among equals.” And surely we can agree that as the Exodus story plays out, the younger Moses clearly tends to outshine the older Aaron.
Thus, I like to imagine that the greater luminary Moses is absent only in name from Tetzaveh. Out of sight does not mean out of mind, and neither has he been deliberately dropped from the page. Rather, appreciating that he might well eclipse his older sibling at just the moment Aaron most deserves to shine; Moses chooses to absent himself — not out of fear but as a result of fraternal pride. And while not visible just now, Moses, I feel certain, is proudly cheering his brother on from the wings — celebrating every new height he achieves.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)