Where is Moses?
This week's Torah portion opens with a different type of dialogue than we have grown accustomed to:
'And you shall command the Children of Israel that they bring to you pure olive oil, beaten for light (fuel), to burn continuously.' [Exodus 27:20]
Instead of the familiar "and God spoke to Moses, saying ..." the Torah simply states "and you ..." The classical commentaries have all but ignored this idiosyncrasy, but the Zohar [in the Midrash Ne'elam] notes the different language employed and provides a theological rationale.
ERASED FROM THE BOOK
After the sin of the golden calf, God offered to make Moses into his own nation.
'And now permit me to allow my anger to burn against them, and I will consume them, and I will make you (Moses) into a great nation.' [Exodus 32:10]
But Moses rejected this offer. Not only that, he was willing to sacrifice all in his valiant attempt to save his people:
'And now, if You would forgive their sin; and if not, erase me from the book which you have written.' [Exodus 32:32]
The Zohar, looking at these verses, writes:
God overlooked Moses' offer (to be erased from the book). Nonetheless Moses was removed from one section of the Torah, the commandments regarding the Mishkan. Which section is this? V'atah T'tzaveh, which should have contained Moses' name in each and every word, and in each and every commandment. But his name was taken out of the entire section, which has no mention of him. This is an example of the curse of a sage (being fulfilled) even when it is conditional. [Midrash Ne'elam Shiur haShirim Maamar 4]
The teaching of the Zohar is that God took Moses up on his "offer" to be taken out of the book, albeit only partially. According to this approach, it would seem that our Torah portion should follow the golden calf episode chronologically, but in the Torah it precedes it.
The other possibility would be that Moses' name did appear in this Torah portion and was later removed as per his request.
OVERLOOKED FOR PRIESTHOOD
But now we ask: Why is it specifically from this Torah portion that Moses' name is removed?
The main topic of this Torah portion is the selection of Aaron and his family as the Kohanim, the priestly caste. This choice is neither justified nor explained; the Torah merely states as fact that Aaron has been chosen to be the High Priest.
This choice is neither justified nor explained -- the Torah merely states that Aaron was chosen as High Priest.
Once again we are returned to the question of chronology: Does this section follow the episode of the golden calf or precede it? If the latter is the case, why would Aaron, who sinned in the golden calf episode, be rewarded with this most exalted appointment? Not only that, why should he have this entire section of the Torah devoted to him and his sons, while Moses, who desperately tried to save his people, has his name removed from the same section?
We must also ask: Why was Aaron chosen to be High Priest and not Moses? Why was Aaron chosen to bring forgiveness to the people in the role of High Priest?
Could it be that Moses was eliminated by some other factor, such as his speech deficiency for example?
The answer to the last question is no. The Maharal explains that speech is a physical act which distinguishes the human race. [Gevurot Hashem, p. 112] Moses' inability to speak was not due to a limitation, but rather to an excess or abundance -- Moses was somehow more than a regular person.
The Talmud and Midrash explain Moses' preparation to ascend Mount Sinai as six days in which the food was purged from his body until Moses became "like one of the angels of heaven." [Avot D'rabi Natan, Ch. 1]
In other words, Moses existed on a different plane, not limited by the physical in the same way. Therefore he did not need to have that indicator of physical existence that defines most human beings.
If his speech was not the reason, perhaps there was something about the duties of the High Priest that caused Moses to be eliminated as a candidate?
DUTIES OF HIGH PRIEST
One of the duties of the High Priest described in this week's Torah portion is the burning of incense called k'toret. The Talmud teaches that the purpose of the k'toret was to atone for the sin of slander and gossip (lashon hara):
It was taught in the school of Rabbi Yishmael: For what (sin) does the k'toret bring atonement? Lashon Hara. Let something performed in secret atone for something done in secret. [Yoma 44a]
We now can understand why Moses was not chosen for this task. Moses transcended speech.
Furthermore, the Maharal explains how on Yom Kippur a special k'toret of the finest materials was offered. This fine k'toret was parallel to the sin of avak lashon hara literally, "dust of bad speech," a prohibition which virtually all the people were guilty of, except Moses.
On Yom Kippur we do not eat or drink, just like angels -- in this we endeavor to be like Moses.
On Yom Kippur we do not eat or drink, just like angels -- in this we endeavor to be like Moses. But Moses was already on this level -- he transcended ordinary man who must strive to get there. He did not require this process of spiritual elevation, but Aaron did.
While we are beginning to see why Moses may not have been the best candidate for the priesthood, we still are puzzled as to the choice of Aaron. After Aaron participated in the sin of the golden calf, why did not God erase him from this book?
AARON'S GOOD INTENTIONS
Aaron's selection is interwoven with his behavior during the golden calf episode. According to the Sages, after Aaron witnessed the murder of Hur, he quickly decided that it would be preferable for him to help with the golden calf and sin. Otherwise, the entire people would become guilty of both killing him and subsequently worshipping the calf, as they surely would have done had he refused. [Talmud Sanhedrin 7b]
Aaron decided that it would be far better for the Jewish people if he alone bore the guilt. Aaron was willing to sacrifice everything for his people, both in this world and the next. The only problem with this tremendous act of heroism and self-sacrifice was that idolatry was involved, good intentions notwithstanding.
These intentions had to be re-channeled. Aaron needed to express his great love of Israel and God in Divine service within the Temple.
Rav Tzaddok Hakohen from Lublin explained that Aharon became Kohen Gadol, not despite the golden calf, rather because of it! [See Takanat Hashavim, p. 20] This is an application of the Talmudic principle that repentance motivated by love of God will turn a sin into a meritorious deed.
And this, at last, is the reason why this whole Torah portion is devoted to Aaron and not Moses.
BEYOND THE ROLE OF PRIEST
Moses was beyond the role of kohen. He had become one with Torah. In the words of the Zohar, surely every word and every command should have been in Moses' name. But then Moses challenged God to erase him from the Torah.
The only difference between them was that Aaron sinned and needed forgiveness, while Moses did not sin.
According to the Zohar, Moses was prepared to sacrifice everything in order to save the people, just as Aaron was. The only difference was that Aaron sinned and therefore needed forgiveness. Moses did not sin; therefore his soul had no need to be a part of this Torah portion.
In other words, Moses simply transcended the events of this Torah portion. By virtue of his self-sacrifice, Moses needed no atonement. He was already angelic -- he had become one with Torah, and one with God.
Perhaps the command of lighting of the oil lamps should have been directed toward Moses. This symbol of the light of Torah seems to fit into Moses' realm. Yet in his place stands Aaron and his children. They will be responsible for all aspects of Temple service for millennia. They will light the lamps, which will shine brightly over the generations, testimony to the sacrifice of Aaron who placed the people before himself, motivated by love of God and nation.