Sunday, February 26, 2012

Getting by Giving (Portion Tetzaveh)

Torah trivia question for this week: What is unique about this week’s portion, Tetzaveh?

Answer: It is the only one from the beginning of Exodus until the end of Deuteronomy in which Moses is not mentioned by name.

Of course in good Jewish fashion, this “answer” only prompts more questions. First and foremost: Why is Moses’ name and voice absent from this parashah? Our Sages point out that the traditional date of Moses’ death, the 7th of Adar, always falls during the week when Tetzaveh is read. As Rabbi Harold Kushner notes, many commentators see Moses’ absence from the Torah reading, like his virtual absence from the Passover haggadah, as part of an effort to ensure that the people would not idolize him at God’s expense.

I, however, prefer another line of interpretation, which starts with the recognition that the real “stars” of this week’s portion are Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons. They are designated to serve God as the priests—kohanim—who will offer the sacrifices and administer the rites in the portable sanctuary that will accompany the Israelites through their wanderings. Thus most of Tetzaveh describes the splendid priestly vessels and vestments in intricate detail.

But before Aaron and his sons can assume their duties, they must be installed by none other than Moses himself. For the full course of the week-long installation ceremony, Moses gets to serve as the priest. Then he must personally hand over the reins of the priesthood to his brother and nephews, dressing them himself in the holy garments and ordaining them with great pomp and pageantry.

At that moment, Moses had good reason to be jealous of Aaron. Surely it would be understandable if he coveted this honor and longed to pass it along to his own sons. Yet the Rabbis tell us that Moses felt only pure joy in surrendering this sacred task to his brother and his descendants. In their commentaries, they suggest that this is the real reason Moses is not mentioned by name in Tetzaveh; this absence teaches that he subsumed his own ego in order to fully rejoice in Aaron’s success.

It can be very difficult for us to take pleasure in the accomplishments of others. All too often, we act as if their success must somehow come at our expense. We begrudge the love and recognition that our friends and neighbors receive, believing that their gain is our loss.

Moses teaches just how wrong-headed this path really is. One of our greatest and most important challenges in life is to emulate his humility, and learn to celebrate the achievements of those around us. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, the fundamental challenge that confronts us all on the road to adulthood is precisely this: “To learn that it is good for you when other people love other people besides you. That I have a stake in their love. That I get more when others give to others. That if I hoard it, I lose it. That if I give it away, I get it back.”

May this week bring us many opportunities to grow by subsuming our own egos and rejoicing in the honor accorded to others.

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