Parashat Tetzaveh: The Strategically Absent Leader

7 Adar 5778/ Feb. 22, 2018

The rabbis strategically divide this week's Torah portion to begin with the last lines from Exodus Chapter 27 that describe the ner tamid, the continuous flame. This light serves as a symbol of God's presence in the mishkan, God's dwelling place among the Israelites in the desert. By placing this section at the head of our Torah portion, the rabbis frame the symbolic nature of the main subject of the Torah portion which is about the clothing the leaders who serve in the mishkan must wear - kohanim, the priests and Aaron as the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. By doing so, our Torah portion is teaching that the leader's symbolic presence, like the eternal light, points us to the sacred.

This lesson of symbolic leadership is most clearly demonstrated in our Torah portion, ironically, through the absence of Moshe's presence. This is the only Torah portion in the last four books of the Torah in which Moshe's name is completely absent. Perhaps this is teaching us that sometimes the best thing a leader can do to point people in the sacred direction is to pull oneself back. In the context of this Torah portion, Moshe's absence creates space for the Torah to focus on the leadership role of Aaron and his sons. His shadow is not even cast over the critical symbolism of how the priestly garb directs us to the sacred.

In the context of the larger narrative, Moshe is receiving these instructions from God on top of Mt. Sinai for 40 days, hidden from the people in a cloud. Again, perhaps the Torah is teaching the people to learn how to function without the constant presence of the leader. We know the dangers of how the cultic style of leadership strips away the autonomy and independence of individuals and the community, and, ultimately, their direct relationship with God. The people learn this lesson through their failure in Moshe's absence in next week's Torah portion about the Golden Calf.

However, we see this strategy of the leader contracting him or herself (or in this case God) again, but this time successfully, in the Purim story. God's name is completely absent from Megillat Esther. God leaves space in the Purim story for humans to take active steps to bring about the necessary redemption. Resulting in God's presence permeating the story through the bold actions of Esther and Mordechai.

There are opposite circumstances when the leader needs to minimize his or her role to emphasize God's role. Like Joseph did when Pharoah asked him to interpret his dreams: "Not I! God will see to Pharaoh's welfare." (Genesis 41:15) Perhaps this is why Moshe's name is also absent from the Hagaddah. The lesson that persists from the Exodus from Egypt is that God cares for the vulnerable. Moshe symbolized God's care in this circumstance, but God's care for the oppressed transcends these circumstances and this particular leader. Hence, the rabbis who composed the Hagaddah teach this lesson by absenting Moshe's role from the telling of the story.

It is often challenging for us to restrain ourselves in one area of our lives to do what we most value in other areas. Hopefully, the lessons from the Torah portion and leaders in our day can help us evaluate the proper balance of our own leadership responsibilities in parenting, on behalf of our communities, or at work.