No human being is as deeply identified with the Torah as Moses. The prophet1 goes so far as to refer to the revealed wisdom of G‑d as “the Torah of My servant Moses,” and the Midrash explains, “Because he gave his life for it, it is called by his name.”2

Given the centrality of Moses’ role to the transmission of Torah to humanity, it comes as no surprise that his name is mentioned, often as many as several dozen times, in every single Parshah (section) of the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. (The first of the Five Books of the Torah, Genesis, relates events that occurred before Moses’ birth. The fifth book, Deuteronomy, consists wholly of Moses’ words to the people of Israel before his passing.)

Every Parshah, that is, but one. The single exception is the section of Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20–30:10), in which the word “Moses” does not appear. Most amazingly, Tetzaveh is the section that, by rights, should be most saturated with Moses’ name: in the annual Torah-reading cycle, Tetzaveh is almost always read either on the Shabbat preceding the seventh of Adar, or on the Shabbat that follows it. The seventh of Adar is the day most closely related to the life of Moses, as it is both the date of his birth3 and of his passing.4

The Baal HaTurim commentary on the Torah explains this omission as the result of Moses’ own words to G‑d in the wake of Israel's sin of the Golden Calf. When G‑d threatened to destroy the people for their betrayal,

Moses returned to G‑d and said: “I beseech You: this nation has sinned a great sin, and have made themselves a god of gold. Now, if You will forgive their sin—; and if You will not, erase me from the book that You have written.”5

Our sages have said that the words of a tzaddik (perfectly righteous person), even when expressed conditionally, always have an effect. So once Moses uttered the words “erase me from the book that You have written,” they were destined to somehow be realized. Thus, concludes the Baal HaTurim, even after G‑d forgave the Jewish people and the conditions for Moses’ proclamation no longer applied, there remains one section of the Torah devoid of his name.

But upon closer examination, Moses is hardly absent from the section of Tetzaveh. In fact, he is more profoundly present there than any mention of his name could possibly express. Tetzaveh consists entirely of G‑d’s ongoing communication to Moses, instructing him on the details of the lighting of the Menorah in the Sanctuary, the construction of the priestly garments and the Sanctuary’s inauguration. All that is missing is the customary “G‑d spoke to Moses, saying . . .” that precedes the divine directives in the rest of the Torah. Thus, Tetzaveh begins almost in mid-sentence: “And you (i.e., Moses) shall command the children of Israel to bring you pure olive oil, crushed for the luminary, to light up a constant lamp . . .”

On the surface, there is a diminution of Moses’ presence—his name does not appear in the entire Parshah. But he is the subject of its first word, v’atah, “and you,” a word that is a truer and deeper reference to Moses than his name.

A name, after all, is something that is given to a person—something appended to an already existent being (in Moses’ case, the name “Moses” was given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter more than three months after his birth). “You,” on the other hand, is a reference to the person himself. Thus, a person’s “name” represents his manifest self—his intellect and character, his communicable thoughts and feelings—while the abstract “you” refers to his anonymous essence, anonymous because it is too sublime and ethereal to be articulated. Tetzaveh is thus the Parshah in the Torah that embodies the “you” of Moses, his transcendent essence.

This is fully in keeping with the Baal HaTurim’s explanation that Moses’ anonymity in Tetzaveh is the result of his expressing the possibility that he be erased from G‑d’s book. Moses was prepared to forgo his place in Torah because his bond with his people was on the level of his “you,” his truest, most quintessential self—a self even deeper than his connection to the Torah. It is this “you” that the Torah recognizes and expresses in the Parshah of Tetzaveh.

G‑d Goes Nameless

Our sages tell us that “the righteous emulate their Creator.”6 The same is true in this case: in giving precedence to Israel over the Torah, Moses was following the divine example.

The Midrash states:

Two things preceded G‑d’s creation of the world: Torah and Israel. Still, I do not know which preceded which. But when Torah states, “Speak to the children of Israel” and “Command the children of Israel”—I know that Israel preceded all.7

In other words, since G‑d’s purpose in creating the universe is that the people of Israel should implement His will as outlined in the Torah, the concepts of “Torah” and “Israel” both precede the concept of a “world” in the Creator’s “mind.” Yet which is the more deeply rooted idea within the divine consciousness, Torah or Israel? Does Israel exist for the Torah to be implemented, or does the Torah exist to serve the Jew in the fulfillment of his mission and the realization of his relationship with G‑d? Says the Midrash: if the Torah describes itself as a communication to Israel, this presumes the concept of Israel as primary to that of Torah. The very idea of a Torah was conceived by the divine mind as a tool to enhance the bond between G‑d and His people—a bond that “predates” it and which it comes to serve.

Thus our sages have said: “A Jew, although he has sinned, is still a Jew.”8 Even if the Jew sins, thereby violating his relationship with G‑d as defined by Torah, he is still a Jew. For the essence of his relationship with G‑d runs deeper than that aspect of it which is realized through his fulfillment of the divine will as formulated in the Torah.

Therein lies the deeper significance of G‑d’s response to Moses’ “ultimatum.” The Torah recounts that when Moses said to G‑d, “If You will not [forgive them], erase me from the book that You have written,” G‑d replied: “Whoever has sinned against Me, him will I erase from My book.”9

At first glance, Moses’ words, dramatic and moving as they are, are very puzzling: other than its dubious value as some sort of “threat” to G‑d (?!), how would Moses’ eradication from the Torah (G‑d forbid) help the people of Israel attain atonement for their sin?

G‑d’s reply also requires explanation. G‑d seems to be rejecting Moses’ plea, saying, in effect, “I will do what I see fit with My Torah. You are in; they go out.” But that is not what G‑d does. He forgives the Jewish people and gives them a second set of tablets engraved by His hand with the Ten Commandments, to replace those broken as a result of their sin. Moses’ words have their desired effect: the Jewish people are rehabilitated, and their place in Torah is preserved, even enhanced (see the Tamudic and Midrashic passages quoted below). So what does G‑d mean when he says, “Whoever has sinned against Me, him will I erase from My book”?

But according to the above, we can understand the deeper meaning implicit in their exchange. True, Moses is saying to G‑d, Your people have sinned a great sin. A sin so great, a sin that so acutely violates Your relationship with them as formulated in the Torah, that in terms of this relationship, their betrayal is unpardonable. But Your bond with them runs deeper than Torah, deeper than anything that can be expressed or destroyed by their deeds. If You cannot forgive them, it is because You are relating to them on Torah’s terms, defining Your bond with them on a level on which their sin cannot be tolerated.

Well, said Moses, I, for myself, will not accept such a state of affairs. If the Torah does not allow for their forgiveness, then erase me from the Torah. Cut me out of the very thing that has consumed my mind, heart and life so completely that the book that You have written has come to be called “the Torah of Moses.” Divest me of my identity as conveyor of Torah, so that I shall stand denuded of everything but my very essence—my relationship with my people.

Now it was the Creator who emulated the righteous. “Whoever has sinned against Me, him will I erase from My book,” G‑d promised. Those whom Torah cannot forgive, those with whom I can no longer sustain the relationship delineated by My book, I will exempt from My book. I will transcend My Torah to revert to the quintessential bond between Me and Israel, which precedes and supersedes My word, wisdom and will. I will follow your example, Moses: you who are prepared to relinquish everything you have and are, should it interfere with your most quintessential priority—your oneness with your people.

The Book is Broadened

Ultimately, Israel’s “erasure” from the Torah resulted not in a diminution, G‑d forbid, of their Torah-defined relationship with the Almighty, but in its reinforcement and intensification.

For once the quintessential bond between G‑d and Israel had been reiterated, this selfsame relationship could now be manifested via the vehicle of Torah, which would now be “broadened” to accommodate that which was previously beyond its realm. Torah would now incorporate the highest level of teshuvah (“return”)—the level on which “sins are transformed into virtues,”10 and the greatest failing and the most terrible betrayal can be sublimated into even greater achievement and even deeper connection.

In the words of our sages, “The First Tablets contained only the Ten Commandments. The Second Tablets contained also halachah, midrash and aggadah.”11 “Had Israel not sinned with the Golden Calf, they would have received only the five books of Moses and the book of Joshua. Why? Because, as the verse says,12 ‘Much wisdom comes through much grief.’”13

The same is true regarding Moses: his readiness to divest himself of his identity as the vehicle through whom G‑d communicated His Torah to man actually resulted in a deepening of his identification with Torah—the incorporation of his very “you” in the Torah, as expressed by his “nameless” presence in the Parshah of Tetzaveh.

Therein lies the deeper significance of Moses’ “absence” in Tetzaveh. In effect, Moses actually did obliterate his “name”—his identification with Torah—in order to be one with his people. As a result, G‑d, too, was moved to forgo His insistence on relating to His people on His “name” level—i.e., the Torah, which is called “the names of G‑d”14—and to reaffirm His quintessential bond with them. This was followed by a renewed giving of the Torah in which this deeper bond could also be “named” and expressed. Nevertheless, even after Moses’ and Israel’s identities were re-established in Torah, there remains one Parshah—the Parshah coinciding with the dates that frame Moses’ life—in which his anonymous essence reigns supreme, unencumbered by name and name-defined identity.

Tetzaveh stands as an eternal tribute to Moses. It is the Torah’s own testimony to Moses’ greatness in relinquishing everything—including his bond with Torah—in order to preserve his bond with his people and restore them to their G‑d.

Moses Today

The “Mosesless” section of Tetzaveh is also of eternal relevance to each and every one of us.

We all sense that beyond our expressed self lies a deeper, more intimate self—thoughts, feelings, convictions and potentials that are too sublime to articulate to others, or even to our own conscious self. But what effect does this deeper self have on our actual behavior and accomplishments? Does it remain in a “seventh heaven” of abstraction, or can it somehow be made to impact our daily lives? We know that Moses, in his greatest moment, touched this purest core of self. But Moses was the most perfect human being ever to walk the face of the earth; of what relevance are his achievements to us?

The Talmud cites the verse,15 “And now, Israel, what does G‑d want of you? Only that you be in awe of G‑d . . .,” and asks: “Is awe of G‑d a minor thing?” The answer given is: “Yes, for Moses it is a minor thing.”16 But G‑d’s request is addressed to all of Israel. How does Moses’ capacity for the awe of G‑d answer the question?

In his Tanya,17 Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains: “Each and every soul of the house of Israel contains within it something of the quality of our teacher Moses, for he is one of the seven shepherds who feed vitality and G‑dliness to the community of the souls of Israel. . . . Moses is the sum of them all, called the ‘shepherd of faith’ in the sense that he nourishes the community of Israel with the knowledge and recognition of G‑d.”

Indeed, it was Moses’ uncompromising identification with his people, no matter to what depths they had fallen, that ensured that each and every Jew, regardless of his spiritual station and moral circumstances, possesses, and can readily access, the “Moses” within himself—his quintessential source of faith and oneness with G‑d.18