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Friday, February 19, 2010

Beyond the Ego: a Commentary on Parshat Tetzaveh

This week’s parashah is Tetzaveh (Shemot/Exodus 27:20-30:10). The parashah begins with God commanding Moses “And as for you, you shall instruct the Israelites to bring you pure olive oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling the Eternal Lamp (v. 20).” At first glance it does not appear that there is anything unusual or extraordinary about this verse. God is simply giving Moses another instruction concerning the Mishkan (Tabernacle), just as God instructed him in the last parashah on how he was to build it. However, it is precisely because God’s instructions to Moses had been at the center of the preceding narrative that commentators have questioned why the verse begins "and as for you, you shall command" rather than simply "command" or "you shall command." After all, “and as for you” would seem to imply that the previous verses had been addressed or referred to someone else.

In her exploration of this strange wording Aviva Zornberg points out that there are two other instances where God’s instructions begin “and as for you.” These other commands are “bring forth your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites to serve me as priests (28:1)” and “speak[ing] to all who are wise of heart … to make Aaron’s vestments for consecrating him to serve Me as priest (28:3).” In all of these cases, preparing the oil for the Menorah, bring Aaron and his sons forward to be made priests, and instructing others how to make the priestly vestment, God is instructing Moses concerning aspects of the priesthood, the realm that is to be his brother’s and not his.

In a midrash we read that during each of the seven days when Moses was at the burning bush he pleaded with God to send someone else. In the end of the midrash, God informs Moses that, because of his unwillingness to take on the mantle of leadership during those seven days, he will not be permitted to ascend to the priesthood. Rather, it will be Aaron and his descendants who are to become the priests. However, God tells Moses, during the seven days when the mishkan is to be dedicated, Moses will be allowed to perform the priestly functions. After that, they belong to Aaron and his sons.

Moses’s reaction to what some might perceive as a punishment is to rejoice over the good fortune of his elder brother Aaron. After all, we read in another midrash, one reason why Moses was reluctant to take on the leadership role was his fear that Aaron would be jealous that his younger brother was to become the leader of the people. However, God informs him that Aaron will rejoice at Moses’s return and upon hearing that he is to lead the mission to Pharaoh. This is exactly what Aaron does and for that he is rewarded by God: let “that same heart that rejoiced in the greatness of his brother [have] precious stones (the priestly breastplate) set upon it.”

Aaron rejoices at God’s choice of Moses as leader and Moses rejoices at the choice of Aaron as High Priest. Nevertheless, according to yet another midrash, after Moses is given the instructions on how to build the mishkan he tells God that he is ready and able to serve as priest. How can this be so if had not only been informed at the burning bush that Aaron was to serve
as priest, but he had actually rejoiced over hearing this news?

Zornberg likens this phenomenon to the Freudian theory that our memories are often forgotten so that we can then proceed in the “remaking of something [that] to all intents and purposes never existed; [for] memory is [in part] a way of inventing the past.” (Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, p. 360). We all know of times in our lives when we “conveniently” forget something and then are stunned when we later “discover” it. Still, when Moses “learns” that Aaron is to become priest and that he is to be “demoted” to the status of a 'mere' Levite (as will his sons) he does not react negatively. Rather, he rejoices, just as Aaron rejoiced in Moses’ choice earlier on.

The choice of Aaron, the elder brother, as priest now means that the rejection of the elder in favor of the younger that runs through the entire book of Bereshit/Genesis has been “set right.” Moses, the younger, may indeed be the leader, but his sons will not inherit his position, and they are all but forgotten in our narrative and our tradition. It is Aaron, the elder, who is given the religious leadership position that will then be inherited by his descendants.

The rejection of Moses and his sons and the reversal of the ancient patterns could easily have been viewed by Moses with anger or disdain. And yet it was not. The relationship between Moses and Aaron is one that involves both loss and gain for each, as well as the altruistic love of
each brother for the other that is symbolized by their reactions when the other is chosen.

In the Torah we are told that Moses’ primary attributes were that of greatness and humility. In reality it is his humility that is at the heart of his greatness. Though Aaron is appointed High Priest, Moses’s humility allows him to rejoice, much as his humility caused him to reject God’s initial call for fear that Aaron would be hurt. This is the meaning underlying the seemingly innocuous “and as for you” that begins the command for Moses to prepare the oil, decorate the courtyard of the mishkan and instruct others to prepare Aaron’s garments. In this way the
“and as for you” is not viewed as further punishment for Moses’ initial reticence (i.e., “And as for you… if you’re going to hesitate to follow my orders I going to take away the priesthood!) Instead, it becomes an acknowledgement of Moses’ humility and his ability to rejoice for his
brother (i.e., “And as for you … you have shown your greatness through your humility and your concern for your brother, and so you shall have the pleasure of preparing all that he needs to begin his priestly service”)

However, there is a danger in humility as well. This danger is that humility itself has the potential to become as much a tool of the ego’s machinations as does hubris. For if the ego is that within us that tries to convince us that everything is about “me” and keeping “me” in
control, then even humility can serve the ego’s purpose. For if one makes too much of one’s humility the result could be that others will then begin to focus on and praise him/her for that humility. Moreover, since the ego seeks praise, comfort, security and dominance, the ego can easily learn that it can catch as many – if not more – flies with the sweetness of humility than it can with the bitterness of hubris.

However, Moses does not seem to get caught up in this ego’s game in this parashah or in it’s various midrashic interpretations. So perhaps we need to think of this verse not so much in terms of humility, but as evidence that Moses, as well as Aaron, was able to see the reality of the “big picture” at that moment.

At first when God chose Moses, he fought against the reality of the moment and what God was showing him. For seven days, an entire period of creation, his ego struggled with God. Perhaps it was ego in the guise of humility saying “I’m not worthy” and looking for the strokes it might get from God: “of course you’re worthy,” “you’re the best man around,” “you’re going to be an amazing leader!” On the other hand, perhaps it was the ego’s desire for comfort, stasis and
certainty telling Moses “don’t do it! You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into! Just keep moving in the other direction!”

Whatever the tactics of the ego, it did not succeed during this seven-day period of creation of Moses as leader at the Burning Bush. Rather, it seems clear that Moses was able to drop the stories of which the ego was trying to convince him and focus on the reality of the moment.
Moses was able to rid himself of his ego and it’s messages. He was able instead to see and hear the reality of what God was saying to him. At that moment, God let him know his role, as well as that of his brother. In addition, from this broadened perspective he was able to accept both his and his brother’s role with joy.

Therefore, “and as for you, you shall command” can be interpreted as God saying, “I am
commanding you, Moses, to do this. I am not speaking to your ego; I am not speaking to your brother. I am speaking to you directly. We are here face-to-face. There is nothing between
us.” So, it is from this place of egoless connection with the Divine that Moses is able to continue his journey as a leader meant to bring all the people to understand that ultimately there is nothing between us and God, for all is God and God is all.

This is something that we all need to remember in those moments when our ego gets in the way or when we separate ourselves from others and from God. Letting go of the ego and its stories, we can each feel commanded by the voice of God within to be present in the moment and to prepare ourselves for the next step of our journey together.

Shabbat Shalom,


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