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Tetzaveh: Brothers’ Keepers

V’asita vigday kodesh l’Aharon achicha l’chavod u’l’tifaret.

You shall make sacred garments for your brother Aaron, to give him honor and splendor. (Exodus 28:2)

Curiously, this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, never mentions Moses by name. This is the only Torah portion from Moses’ birth at the beginning of the Book of Exodus until the Children of Israel reach the far banks of the Jordan at the end of the Book of Numbers in which Moses’ name does not appear.

This anomaly presents a bonanza for Torah commentators like me: what deeper understandings and teachings can be derived from Moses’ unusual absence? Tetzaveh transpires while Moses is up on Mount Sinai, receiving instructions from YHVH on how the Children of Israel are to build and maintain the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that will be a dwelling place for the Divine Presence as the Children of Israel travel through the wilderness. In Tetzaveh specifically, Moses receives the instructions for how to make the sacred garments that his brother Aaron will wear as Cohen Hagadol, the High Priest, and how Moses is to ordain Aaron (and Aaron’s sons) for this position. While YHVH is certainly addressing Moses in Tetzaveh, Moses is exclusively addressed as “you”, never by name; the focus is entirely on Aaron, Moses’ brother.

One might say that the first exchange of questions in the Torah sets the agenda for the entire teaching that we have inherited. After Cain slays his brother Abel in his rage that YHVH preferred Abel’s offering over his own, God asks, “Where is your brother Abel?” To which Cain makes the petulant, defiant reply, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This question hovers over the remainder of the Book of Genesis. Ishmael mocks Isaac, and the two grow up separated, to their father Abraham’s sorrow. We infer that they might have reconciled when, after Abraham dies, they come together to bury their father. There is progress. Jacob spends his young life trying to outflank his twin Esau, to disastrous effect. Only much later as adults do they meet and embrace, and then go their separate ways. They do reconcile. Joseph’s brothers plot to kill him because he flaunts their father’s special affection for him over his brothers. Only much later do they come together, and despite Joseph’s forgiveness his brothers clearly do not believe him, and live together in Egypt under his largesse in an uneasy peace. It is not a relationship of peers, but Joseph does answer the question “Am I my brothers’ keeper?” with an unequivocal yes. Here the Book of Genesis ends.

Exodus introduces us to the next set of brothers, and Moses and Aaron demonstrate a heretofore unseen and inspirational level of “brother-keeping.” The brothers are very different from each other, and have different leadership strengths. But rather than compete for the top role, they collaborate as the leaders of the people, largely without one-upmanship. And their relationship is presented as one of loving respect. At the burning bush, as Moses once again demurs from God’s call to him to go speak to Pharaoh, claiming himself unable to speak well, YHVH says,

Is there not your brother Aaron? He speaks readily. Even now he is setting out to meet you, and his heart will be glad when he sees you. (Exodus 4:14)

“His heart will be glad when he sees you.” How different this is from the meetings of brothers in Genesis!

When the messengers came back to Jacob, they said, “Your brother Esau is coming to meet you, accompanied by four hundred men.” And Jacob was terrified (Genesis 32:7-8)

“I am your brother Joseph – Is my father really alive?” But his brothers were unable to answer him – they recoiled in fear of him. (Genesis 45:3)

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments:

The brothers [Moses and Aaron] work together from the very outset of the mission to lead the Israelites to freedom. They address the people together. They stand together when confronting Pharaoh. They perform signs and wonders together. They share leadership of the people in the wilderness together. For the first time, brothers function as a team, with different gifts, different talents, different roles, but without hostility, each complementing the other.*

Rabbi Sacks is following an ancient midrashic line. When Aaron goes out to meet Moses, the Torah relates “And he kissed him” (Exodus 4:27). The Midrash comments: This means: each rejoiced at the other’s greatness. (Shemot Rabbah 5:10)

Of course, over the next 40 years Moses and Aaron have disagreements and conflicts. They are human. Aaron even challenges Moses’ leadership at one point. But Moses’ fundamental humility always transcends the difficulty. He truly does not think of himself in any way as someone exceptionally entitled or special. Despite being the younger brother, Moses never tries to usurp his brother’s role. Again, what a contrast with Jacob, or Joseph!

So, why does Moses’ name not appear in our parshah? Because in all of these instructions dedicated to investing Aaron in his leadership role, Moses feels no need to interject himself. In fact, Moses wants to get out of the way, when the spotlight is meant to be on his brother. This is reflected in our verse, You shall make sacred garments for your brother Aaron, to give him honor and splendor (Exodus 28:2). Just as Aaron was happy in his heart to see Moses, so Moses is truly happy to give his brother honor and splendor, equal to his own.

As the midrash phrases it so eloquently, “each rejoiced at the other’s greatness.” In this week’s parshah, it is Aaron’s turn to shine, and Moses cedes center stage with grace. Neither needed to overshadow the other’s light in order to feel fulfilled. May we all learn from their example.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jonathan