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The timely absence of Moses

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FROM the time of his birth until the end of the Torah, Moses is mentioned in every Torah portion except one: this one.

The question is twofold: Why should Moses be omitted from any portion of the Torah? He was the leader of the exodus, the recipient of the Divine revelation, the arbiter of disputes within the Jewish people. He was the central figure in the Torah.

If we can figure out why Moses was omitted, is there a reason why he was omitted from this week’s Torah portion in particular, and not another one?

The medieval authority, Tur (1269-1343), explains that Moses was omitted because he himself said, “Please remove me from Your book!” (Exodus 32:32). Moses plead for forgiveness for the Israelites after they betrayed G-d, falling to the worship of an idol, the golden calf. Moses said to G-d, in effect: If You will not forgive my people, I don’t want to be part of it, either — “remove me from Your book.”

G-d did forgive the people, but the Talmud (Makkot 11a) says that the curse of a sage comes true even if it is conditional on (for example) an absence of Divine forgiveness, and even if the condition is not fulfilled (which it wasn’t; G-d did forgive the people). So, Moses was removed from the “book,” i.e., the Torah, at least in part.

But why was he removed from this part of the Torah, in which   G-d describes and prescribes special clothing for the priests of the Tabernacle? Strange. Moses was not even a priest. Yet, the absence of Moses from this week’s Torah portion must have something to do with the priesthood.

RABBI Abraham Isaac Kuk (1865-1935), the first chief rabbi of Palestine, wrote, “Human beings are greater than animals due to clothing. The honor that is drawn from clothing pushes human beings to recognize their intellectual greatness. Therefore, one should treat clothing with respect.”

So much the more for the priestly class with its special clothes. If priests (kohanim) served without their special vestments, their service was invalid. Even more. The priesthood existed only insofar as the priests were garbed in their vestments (Zevachim 17b). Indeed, the priests were ordained into their service through their vestments (Rashi, Exodus 28:3).

Clothes made the priest.

Which, of course, begs the question.

For Moses was not a priest.

His brother, Aaron, and Aaron’s descendants, were priests.

What does their clothing have to do with Moses, and his absence?

Actually, clothes are a concession. They may divide human beings from animals, but it was not always so. Initially, in the Garden of Eden, there was nothing wrong with being naked. As R. Kuk pointed out, the Hebrew word for clothing, begged, denotes betrayal. It was only after Adam and Eve betrayed the Divine command not to eat of the tree of good and evil that they knew shame, and needed to hide behind clothes.

The same is true, wrote R. Kuk, for the priestly garments, of which there were eight. Each atoned for a different sin: arrogance, hurtful words, improper thoughts, and so on (Zevachim 88b).

Moses, in fact, was a priest — one time, temporarily. Before Aaron entered the Tabernacle for the first time to perform his duties, Moses dedicated the Tabernacle (Exodus 29). Moses performed the initial priestly service in the Tabernacle.

Yet, he did not don the priestly vestments, wearing only a simple white robe (Avodah Zarah 34a). He did not don the priestly vestments because he, unlike Aaron the High Priest, had not sinned; he had no role in the making or worship of the golden calf. Therefore, in R. Kuk’s reading, Moses said:

“Remove me from that part of Your book that commands the priests to wear special clothes, which expiate for sin. I had no need for these clothes, since I did not sin.”

Still more.

The priests wore their special clothing only when they performed their special service in the Tabernacle (later, in the Temples). When the priests changed into their regular clothing, the priests enjoyed no special status as servants of the Alm-ghty. Moses was different. He was always “on,” always a servant of G-d (Deut. 34:5), regardless of the clothes he wore.

For the priests, the clothes made the man.

For Moses, he made the man. He was a servant of G-d in his essence, not just when he wore special clothing.

Which is why, the one time he did act as a priest, he wore a simple, seamless robe.

And which is why, when he asked to be taken out of G-d’s book, he was removed from that part — our Torah portion — that commands the special clothing of the priests.

•     •     •

I first heard this dvar Torah from Dr. David Polaner, who retrieved it from an Internet file on R. Kuk’s teachings. I have since located that file (Google “Rav Kuk, Torah, Tetzaveh”), which informs the viewer that this teaching of R. Kuk is adapted by Chanan Morrison in 2006 from Shemuot HaRe’iyah, Tetzaveh, 1929, quoted in Peninei HaRe’iyah, pp. 175-176.

The quote from R. Kuk on clothing is from Ein Iyah, Berachot, 9:258, translated by Gideon Weitzman in his Sparks of Light (1999) and slightly modified here.

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