Learn how the Momentum Campaign is reconstructing Judaism → 

Why Moses Did Not Become A Priest

This week’s parashah, Tetzaveh, 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 (Exodus 27:20).” At first glance it does not appear that there is anything unusual or extraordinary about this verse. It is simply God giving Moses another instruction concerning the Mishkan (Tabernacle), just as God instructed him last week 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 “V’atah tetzaveh” (and as for you, you shall command) as opposed to simply tzav (command!) or tetzaveh (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 concern “bring[ing] forward 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, bringing Aaron and his sons forward to be made priests, and instructing others how to make the priestly vestment, Moses is given instructions concerning the priesthood, the realm that is to be his his brother’s and not his.

A midrash tells us that during the seven days when Moses was at the burning bush each day he pleaded with God to send someone else (which we know from the Torah text). In the end of the midrash, God informs Moses that because of his unwillingness to take on the task during those seven days he will not be permitted to ascend to the priesthood. Rather, it is Aaron and his descendants who will become the priests. However, for seven days, when the Mishkan is dedicated, Moses will be allowed to perform the priestly functions, but not after that.

Moses’ reaction to what might be perceived as a punishment is to rejoice over the good fortune of his elder brother Aaron. After all, Midrash tells us, one reason why Moses is reluctant to take on the leadership role is because he is afraid that Aaron will be jealous that his younger brother is the leader of the people. However, God informs him that Aaron will rejoice at seeing Moses and hearing that he is to lead the mission to Pharaoh, and indeed he does. For this Aaron is rewarded; let “that same heart that rejoiced in the greatness of his brother [have] precious stones (the priestly breastplate) set upon it.”

And so Aaron rejoices at God’s choice of Moses as leader and Moses then rejoices at the choice of Aaron as high priest, even though the Midrash portrays this as Moses’ punishment for not being eager to go on God’s mission. Nevertheless, when Moses is given the instructions on how to build the Mishkan he tells God in a Midrash that he is ready and able to serve as priest. How can this be so if had been informed at the burning bush that Aaron was to serve priest and if Moses himself had actually rejoiced over this? Zornberg likens this phenomenon to the Freudian concept that often our memories are 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. 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 now been “set right.” Moses, the younger, may indeed be the leader, but his sons not only do not inherit his position, but they are all but forgotten in our narrative. It is Aaron, the elder, who is given the religious leadership position that will then be inherited by his sons.

The rejection of Moses and his sons and the reversal of the ancient patterns could easily be viewed by Moses with anger or disdain. And yet it is not. The relationship between Moses and Aaron is one that involves both loss and gain for each brother while at the same time involving 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 “kohen gadol” (literally, great priest) Moses’ 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., God saying “And as for you if you’re going to hesitate to follow my orders not only am I going to take away the priesthood, but I am going to make you prepare everything for your brother the priest and then let you serve as priest for seven days only so you can then hand the duties over to him!) Instead, it becomes an acknowledgement of Moses’ humility and his ability to to rejoice for his brother (Read as, “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, including dedicating the sanctuary that is then to be his domain from then on.”)

After all the generations of brothers fighting, stealing from, and even killing one another throughout Bereyshit we finally have an example of brothers who can care about each other and work together in cooperation. I would like to be able to say that this is what is at the heart of every sibling relationship, but as we all know, sibling rivalry is as much a part of these relationships as is sibling love. As a matter of fact, in many, if not most cases, there is always a time when rivalry seems to outweigh love and caring. It is at these times that we need to remember that we are the descendants of the characters of Shemot as well as those we find in Bereyshit .. We have the ability within us to rise to the occasion by humbling ourselves and caring for others, as did Moses. We may not be able to do this all the time, but we can certainly try. In that way we can read our own “and as for you,” spoken to us by our unconscious mind, as a reminder to us of the rewards we receive for caring for our siblings, other family members and friends, rather than as a chastisement for not fulfilling our obligations and our potential.

The Reconstructionist Network

Serving as central organization of the Reconstructionist movement

Training the next generation of groundbreaking rabbis

Modeling respectful conversations on pressing Jewish issues

Curating original, Jewish rituals, and convening Jewish creatives

The Reconstructionist Network