Shabbat Greetings

Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10) is a unique portion in that Moses is behind the scenes. In fact, he is not mentioned by name at all, and all the focus is on his brother, Aaron, and on the role he came to occupy and personify, that of High Priest (Kohen Gadol). There are many possibilities as to why this went to Aaron as opposed to Moses himself, the most obvious being that this was Moses’ punishment for refusing one time too many God’s request that he lead the Israelites, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

There is, though, a deeper message, the principle of the separation of powers, which opposes the concentration of leadership into one person or institution. All human authority needs checks and balances if it is to remain un-corrupted. In particular, political and religious leadership, should never be combined. Moses wore the crowns of political and prophetic leadership, Aaron that of priesthood. The division allowed each to be a check on the other. That is the theory. What is especially interesting is how this works out in terms of personal relationships, in this case that between the two brothers, Moses and Aaron. The Torah says relatively little about their family dynamic, but the hints are fascinating.

Moses was Aaron’s younger brother, three years his junior. Would it not have been natural for Aaron to be more than a little envious that his younger brother was about to become the leader he himself was not destined to be – all the more so since Moses had not spent his life among his people. He had been, first, an adopted prince of Egypt, and had then taken refuge with Jethro and the Midianites. Relative to Aaron, Moses, his younger brother, was also an outsider. Yet God says, “He will be glad to see you.”

Aaron’s ability to rejoice in his brother’s rise to greatness is particularly striking when set against the entire biblical history of the relationship between brothers thus far. (Cain & Abel, etc.) But now comes the second test, this time not of Aaron but of Moses. Moses is now being commanded to create a form of leadership he himself will never be able to exercise, that of the priesthood, and the person he must award it to is his elder brother. Can he do so with the same generosity of spirit that his brother showed toward him?

The Torah is clear in God’s insistence that it be Moses who bestows this honor on Aaron. Moses must show the people – and Aaron himself – that he has the humility, the tzimtzum (withdrawing his own essence to allow for Aaron’s presence), the power of self-effacement, needed to make space for someone else to share in the leadership of the people. Someone whose strengths are not his, whose role is different from his, someone who may be more popular, closer to the people, than Moses is – as in fact Aaron turned out to be.

It’s rare for a leader to be able to share the spotlight so generously. It takes a special kind of character to make space for those whom one is entitled to see as rivals. Early on, Aaron showed that character in relation to Moses, and now Moses is called on to show it to Aaron. True leadership involves humility and magnanimity. As Rabbi Sacks suggests, “The smaller the ego, the greater the leader.” That’s what Moses showed in this portion that does not mention his name.