Thursday, February 10, 2011

Erase me from your book!

When God got angry at Israel regarding the golden calf, Moshe put on his lawyering cap, and went to court on our behalf. One of his maneuvers is recorded in Exodus 32:32 where Moshe says "And now, lift their sin, and if not, erase me please from Your book that You wrote."

Our school children are taught (following Rashi) that Moshe was asking to have his name erased from the Torah, if Israel was not forgiven. After God's anger abated, and atonement was granted, God was left with a problem, so to speak: Moshe had said "erase me from your book" and we have a principle that the curses and blessings of a righteous person comes true, even if the words were only uttered conditionally. Therefore, Moshe's words were partially fulfilled and his name was erased from Tetzaveh.

There are two obvious problems with this teaching. See them after the jump
(1) Moshe's name is missing from several weekly Torah portions. It doesn't appear anywhere in Genesis, or in Ekev, Re'eh, or Shoftim.

(2) The division of verses into the weekly readings is entirely man-made. In Israel, they divided up the reading one way, and completed the Torah every three years; in Babylon the divisions were different and the Torah was finished annually. Thus, it wasn't God who removed Moshe from Tetzaveh ; rather, this was achieved by whatever human process created the weekly readings. Moreover, if the Israeli system had won out there would be several more weeks in which Moshe's name would not be mentioned in the weekly reading.

My solution is to follow the Ramban, and others who, following the Mechilta, say that Moshe was not asking to be removed from the Torah, but from the Book of Life, that is, Moshe is asking to be killed in Israel's place, to bear her sins, to die for her sake. (Sound familiar? The Ramban makes the connection crystal by quoting the Suffering Servant passage. He concludes with a bit of anti-Christian parshanut saying that God would never let a blameless man take someone else's punishment.)

Later, when the weekly readings were established, and men began organizing the verses into parashas, perhaps the organizers interpreted Moshe's request according to Rashi, and understood that  Moshe wanted to be removed from the Torah. They honored the request by arranging the verses that became Tetzaveh so that Moshe was not included.

There are many reasons why Tetzaveh makes a good choice for honoring the request:

(1) Its convenient. These are the first set of verses following Moshe's birth in which he goes unmentioned for an extended period.
(2) It fits Moshe's character. Tetzaveh is very much Aaron's parsha. Wouldn't modest Moshe take a back seat, and allow his brother to have the spotlight? (Yissocher Frand)
(3) It makes a good pun: Moshe asked to be removed from Sifrecha This can be read as sefer chaf, or book #20. Tetzaveh is the twentieth parsha. (Ovadya Yosef)

Incidentally, there is good evidence that Moshe was deliberately left out of this parsha. Teztzaveh is a slightly shorter than average parsha, and it is followed by Ki Tisah, a slightly longer than average parsha. The opening section of Ki Tisah is concerned with raising money to support the mishkan. Thematically, these verses connect with Truemah and Tetzaveh, and not with the rest of Ki Tisah. However, these verse mention Moshe by name. All of this seems to suggest that some verses which tie in with Tetzaveh were instead attached to Ki Tisah.

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