Confronting An Absence
Both Parashat Tetzaveh and the Book of Esther are missing some central characters.
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women's Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Most years, this Torah portion is read during the week preceding Purim. The connection between the parashah and Purim is not immediately apparent. Tetzaveh is filled with exacting details about the assembly of the priestly garments and the ritual role Aaron and his sons are to perform as anointed priests. The book of Esther is a melodramatic tale of threat, intrigue, and ultimate redemption through plot twists and the reluctant heroism of a beautiful queen.
While the plots and purposes of these texts are vastly different, each in its own way, asks us to confront an absence. Tetzaveh is the only parashah from the beginning of the book of Exodus until the end of Deuteronomy where the name of Moses does not appear. And Esther is one of only two books of the Bible where the name of God does not appear. These absences are cause for abundant commentary in each individual case, but the relationship between the two texts seems to receive only passing mention. What insight can this parallel presence of absence convey?
Why is Moses Missing?
Many commentators speculate as to why Moses' name is absent from parashat Tetzaveh. One theory is that the omission is meant to acknowledge the anniversary of his death, which is said to be the seventh of Adar, just one week before Purim. Another theory is that Moses' name is left out as divine admonishment for his jealousy over Aaron's appointment as chief priest. Still others maintain that in his humility and self-effacement, Moses graciously cedes the role to his brother and absents himself from the narrative, so to speak, to make this clear.
Regardless of the reaction that Moses mayor may not have experienced when his brother became the head priest instead of him, the narrative suggests that although his name is not mentioned, Moses remains God's agent-the enabler for all that is to happen. This is made evident through an unusual grammatical formulation found in the parashah's opening verses.
Elsewhere in the Torah, God's commands to Moses are stated in the simple imperative: "instruct" (tzav) or "speak" (dabber). In Tetzaveh, however, three instances of an additional pronoun appear, giving extra emphasis to the actor responsible for the actions. Translating the text more literally, the first verse of the parashah (27:20) reads: ''And you, yourself shall command the children of Israel." Shortly thereafter, we read: "And you, bring near to yourself your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests" (28:1). The same grammatical form appears two lines later: "You, yourself speak to all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron's vestments" (28:3).