There is an exquisite detail, oft overlooked, in this past week’s Torah portion: Moses is missing. The portion itself doesn’t really need Moses. It is for the most part a detailed description of the priestly garments that were to be worn when the priests officiated at the sacrificial services in ancient times. We know already that Moses will not serve the people in this way. Instead, Aaron and his sons will minister over the formal rituals and rites of the Temple cult. So why even bother to note that Moses does not appear in the portion, his name not even mentioned a single time?
The old adage is ‘silence speaks volumes,’ and so it is here. For this is the only Torah portion, from the point Moses is first mentioned at the beginning of Exodus, where his name does not appear. The only one. That is to say in every Torah portion in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy you will find Moses’ name. But not here, in Parshat T’tzaveh.
Perhaps those who view the world through a secular lens will write this off as mere coincidence, just simple chance in terms of how the portions were divided so long ago. But the classical biblical commentators refuse to see the text that way. If every verse, even every letter can have meaning, certainly there must be significance to this starkly visible disappearance. Whither Moses? And perhaps more importantly, why did he go?
One traditional explanation is that Moses is trying to make things easier for Aaron, his brother. The portion focuses on those priestly garments, and were Moses a presence it would be distracting, taking the people’s attention (or perhaps the reader’s) from the High Priest and his high station. Moses’ prophecy is a delicate thing, a genie in a bottle, difficult to control and predict and understand. The priests, meanwhile, are entirely predictable. Their ancient rites never vary, from day to day, month to month, year to year. Moses knows that ultimately the people will need the security of repetitive ritual and not the sturm and drang of prophecy. So he politely steps aside, out of the spotlight, thereby enabling a less dramatic but far more reliable and accessible religious system for the people.
I wonder. There is the hint of a bitter-sweet wind in the air. For all of his sacrifices, for all of his work, and despite his total loyalty to God and God’s mission, Moses will be cast aside. Perhaps in the patterns of the priestly garments, in their weavings and colors and carvings, he sees that soon his time too will come. And so to protect himself he begins to step away.
The lyrics to one of my favorite Jackson Browne songs, My Opening Farewell, come to mind:
Suddenly it’s so hard to find
The sound of the words to speak her troubled mind
So I’m offering these to her as if to be kind:
There’s a train everyday leaving either way
There’s a world, you know
There’s a way to go
And you’ll soon be gone — that’s just as well
This is my opening farewell