Tetzaveh: Brothers’ Keepers

V’asita vigday kodesh l’Aharon achicha l’chavod u’l’tifaret.

You shall make sacred garments for your brother Aaron, to give him honor and splendor. (Exodus 28:2)

Curiously, this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, never mentions Moses by name. This is the only Torah portion from Moses’ birth at the beginning of the Book of Exodus until the Children of Israel reach the far banks of the Jordan at the end of the Book of Numbers in which Moses’ name does not appear.

This anomaly presents a bonanza for Torah commentators like me: what deeper understandings and teachings can be derived from Moses’ unusual absence? Tetzaveh transpires while Moses is up on Mount Sinai, receiving instructions from YHVH on how the Children of Israel are to build and maintain the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that will be a dwelling place for the Divine Presence as the Children of Israel travel through the wilderness. In Tetzaveh specifically, Moses receives the instructions for how to make the sacred garments that his brother Aaron will wear as Cohen Hagadol, the High Priest, and how Moses is to ordain Aaron (and Aaron’s sons) for this position. While YHVH is certainly addressing Moses in Tetzaveh, Moses is exclusively addressed as “you”, never by name; the focus is entirely on Aaron, Moses’ brother.

One might say that the first exchange of questions in the Torah sets the agenda for the entire teaching that we have inherited. After Cain slays his brother Abel in his rage that YHVH preferred Abel’s offering over his own, God asks, “Where is your brother Abel?” To which Cain makes the petulant, defiant reply, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This question hovers over the remainder of the Book of Genesis. Ishmael mocks Isaac, and the two grow up separated, to their father Abraham’s sorrow. We infer that they might have reconciled when, after Abraham dies, they come together to bury their father. There is progress. Jacob spends his young life trying to outflank his twin Esau, to disastrous effect. Only much later as adults do they meet and embrace, and then go their separate ways. They do reconcile. Joseph’s brothers plot to kill him because he flaunts their father’s special affection for him over his brothers. Only much later do they come together, and despite Joseph’s forgiveness his brothers clearly do not believe him, and live together in Egypt under his largesse in an uneasy peace. It is not a relationship of peers, but Joseph does answer the question “Am I my brothers’ keeper?” with an unequivocal yes. Here the Book of Genesis ends.
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