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Parashat Tetzaveh -5784

A Blueprint for Serving God – Then and Now…

February 19, 2024
by Rabbi Marge Wise (AJR '21)

A first or even a second reading of the text of Parashat Tetzaveh doesn’t begin to reveal the nuances, the implications, the messages of what might otherwise sound like elaborate but formulaic instructions for how to light the lights and for how to dress the priests. Instead, we can learn so much from the choice of words and from the message behind the words which inform our lives to the present day. Reflecting on God’s instructions to us as we struggled to become a nation was a learning curve – then and now.

Parashat Tetzaveh opens with, “You shall command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for the light so that the lamps may be kept burning (Ex. 27:20)

וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה אַת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד

Why does the text say “command” and not “speak to” or “say to” which are more common expressions in the Torah? According to the midrash (Sifre, Naso 1), “The imperative implies the moment of the action itself as well as into the future.” Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, Troyes, France; 1085-1158 C.E.) agrees, comparing this verse with the opening verse of the previous parashah, Terumah, “Speak to the Israelites and take for Me an offering…” This was for that time only and for the immediate purpose of building the Mishkan. However, in Tetzaveh, every use of the imperative form of “command” implies that it is for generations to come.

A second question is whether the commandment to light an eternal lamp is only intended to illuminate the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, or to add to its “honor and glory,” or, does the light have an entirely different meaning?

Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997), renowned Bible scholar, based in Jerusalem, held that the mitzvah to light the eternal lamp and specifically with pure, beaten oil has many meanings. The light that shown from the eternal lamp before the curtain, outside the Tent of Meeting, was not intended for God’s benefit, she continued, because God was not the “receiver” of the light nor, in fact, did God “need” it for God is the Giver of Light to the world. In the midrash (Shemot Rabbah 36:3) light is the symbol of knowledge and Torah, “See how the words of Torah enlighten a person when he is occupied with it. A person who performs a mitzvah is compared to someone who kindled a lamp before the Holy Blessed One, and has restored his soul. As it is stated in scripture (Prov. 20:27), ‘The lamp of God is the soul of a human being.’”

Parashat Tetzaveh is known for another unique feature. It is the only parashah from the beginning of Shemot to the end of Devarim that does not contain the name of Moses. Several interpretations have been offered for this:

The Vilna Gaon suggests that it is related to the fact that in most years it is read during the week in which the seventh of Adar falls: the day of Moses’ death. His absence from Tetzaveh helps us mourn that loss.

The Baal HaTurim has another reason: he relates it to Moses’ plea, in next week’s parashah, for God to forgive Israel following the sin of the golden calf. “If not,” says Moses, “blot me out of the book you have written” (Ex. 32:32). There is a principle that “The proclamation of a sage comes true, even if it was conditional” (Makkot 11a). Thus, for one week Moses’ name was “blotted out” from the Torah.

Additional explanations have been offered for the absence of Moses’ name but, in essence, although he dominates four of the five books that bear his name, in Parashat Tetzaveh for once it is Aaron, the first of a succession of priests, who is the center of attention.

According to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “whereas Moses lit the fire in the souls of the Jewish people, Aaron tended the flame and turned it into an eternal light.”

In terms of understanding the significance of both the Tabernacle and the Exodus, thereby connecting the first and last parts of the book of Exodus, God tells us how He views our relationship with Him and vice versa (Ex. 29:45-46):

וְשָׁ֣כַנְתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָהֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִֽים׃

וְיָדְע֗וּ כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י ה’ אֱלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצֵ֧אתִי אֹתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לְשׇׁכְנִ֣י בְתוֹכָ֑ם אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיהֶֽם׃

. . . I shall dwell among the children of Israel, becoming their God; and they will know that I, Hashem, am their God, who brought them out of the Land of Egypt so that I might dwell in their midst; I, Hashem, am their God.

This passage not only tells us that the purpose of the Tabernacle is for God to dwell among the Israelites (which we already knew from Parashat Terumah in Exodus 25:8 and 22)—it also tells us that the construction of the Tabernacle was the very purpose of the liberation from slavery itself (“I . . . brought them out of the Land of Egypt so that I might dwell in their midst”). God liberated Israel so that God would have a personal relationship to a group of human beings. That group would then follow detailed instructions to build a structure that would allow for God to be both transcendent and immanent – both apart from, and present in, this world of humans.

To further illustrate this, Professor Benjamin Sommer holds that God didn’t simply want to become present in the world. In fact, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, taught that God’s most powerful influence comes not through acting in the world, but rather through conscious and deliberate refraining from acting.

Furthermore, God wanted human beings to bring God into the world. The Tabernacle was long ago replaced by the Temple, and the Temple by the synagogue. The task, however, remains the same, as does the challenge that Parashat Tetzaveh gives our people once again.

When Parashat Tetzavah lastly describes the ordination ritual for Aaron and his sons to the priesthood, it focuses on the process of bringing human beings closer to God. There can only be one Moses; but, over the course of Jewish history, hundreds of priests would be ordained to carry out their sacred tasks and after the destruction of the Temple, thousands more rabbis would carry on the chain of ordination.

During this brief moment in which Moses steps aside, we learn that there are many ways to do God’s work. As we’ve dedicated ourselves as clergy, we’ve taken on the mantle of leadership, of being klei kodesh, vessels of holiness. In Moses’ absence let’s each assess our own role in the ongoing Jewish narrative.

In  Rabbi Adam Greenwald’s words, “By taking a step back, then, Moses and God invite us to take a step forward and discover our own capacity to act. A parent who never learns to give their child space will never equip them with the ability to survive and to thrive on their own.”

In that context, we learned that Moses would not enter the Promised Land with the children of Israel, necessitating the appointment of a new leader.

Our challenge is to forge a path on our own; a path laid out by Moses our greatest teacher, on a path toward God, our Heavenly parent. As toddlers learning to walk do, we will sometimes stumble and fall, but as we start to trust our own abilities, we learn how to step up, and how to do so with a measure of confidence.

It is my prayer and hope that, given the inspiration and the challenge from God and the example of Moses, that we may be worthy of forging paths for good. May our paths be marked by acts of tikkun olam, making this world a better place. May our steps always head in that direction – sowing understanding and tolerance where there is hate, planting seeds of peace where there is strife and emulating the humility of Moses – of knowing before Whom we stand.

Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Marge Wise (AJR ’21), is also known as the Journey Rabbi. Her passion is outreach, including teaching prospective Jews by choice and accompanying them on their journey to formal conversion. She teaches in person and on Zoom.